Walking the rocky dirt road up to the fields, Kostas reaches down an plucks a flowering sprig and hands it to me. “mantzourána” (marjoram) he says as he hands it to me. All along the kilometer long road beneath the village, the founders of one of Crete’s most fascinating agro-businesses repeat the process. Here, in the heart of one of the world’s botanical paradises, an herbal treasure trove of rare plants grow like wildfire. Sage, mint, thyme, chamomile, oregano, spearmint – one after another I am reacquainted via rejuvenated olfactory nerves with Earth’s essentials. Read on about agriscience of the ages rediscovered on Crete island.
Iliostasio is an all-natural herb company founded by two cousins (axades) Kostas and Giannis Fragkiadakis (below) back in 2012. Located in Kyparissos, a small village in the central highlands (350 meters) of Heraklion Prefecture, the bio-herbal company began as an experiment in unique environmental and botanical concepts. The best way to describe the efforts of Iliostasio’s founders is to look at other artisanal crop developments under the French winemaking terroir regime. Not only does this company cultivate rare herbs native only to Crete, but the cousins who planted the first seeds with their own hands also strive to duplicate the phenotypes with exacting methodology.
When I visited Iliostasio farm this week, I was impressed with the level of science and scope of operations of this small farm on the hillsides of an Eden-like landscape. This year’s unusually high rainfall has transformed the arid hillsides of Crete into a carpet of ultra-green olive trees, grapevines, and aromatic plants reminiscent of some bygone era of prehistory. Even my photographs cannot reflect the beauty of this island with water added. Trillions of blossoms of every color have magnified an already unbelievable ecology here. With this environment as the backdrop, the scattered patches of herbs grown by the Iliostasio farmers are cultivated to coincide with nature’s agro-scheme. Kostas and Giannis explained the cultivation, processing, and distribution processes, after which the company’s foreman, a super nice man introduced to us as Muhammad, explained their harvesting and testing methods to me.
Planted, cultivated and harvested as in ancient times (hands and knees style) all the herbs Iliostasio grows are planted where the various wild herbs grow here on Crete. Muhammad and the two cousins search out the best patches of thyme (for instance), and then they try to mimic the natural growing circumstances. Looking on at the after effect, the method seems to be pure genius for me. This is especially true since I’ve been studying ancient curatives specific to Crete, and in particular, dittany, which is one of a few herbs which occurs naturalöy only on the island. Muhammad, who’s worked for Kostas and Giannis since moving from Pakistan a dozen years ago, confirms what my research into rare medicinals. And the Iliostasio are far ahead of me on the trail of amazing cures through essential oils etc. Kostas Fragkiadakis confirmed negotiations between his company and a pharma group for purchasing the exacting herb products from lliostasio. I’d rather not get into herbal secrets here, but a great many academic and business concerns are currently studying these ancient herbal medicinal properties.
It’s impossible to convey the good effort Iliostasio is making toward creating differentiated herbal products without explaining the “place” the plants are grown. Standing on the steep hillsides of the part of Crete looking out over the region’s amazing landscape, you get the full sense of just how mountainous and how diverse this island is. As a geographer, even my sense of Crete’s topography was skewed before walking the peaks and valleys that make the island SO MUCH bigger than its flat geometric dimensions. And within this vast ecozone, there are unlimited mini-zones like the one surrounding Kyparissos. In fact, while we explored one of the patches, where rígani, (oregano), dentrolívano (Rosemary), and hypericum jovis (St. John’s Wort) which grows naturally on the slopes of Mt. Juktas and other central Crete peaks.
After walking the high trails that access the various patches of rare herbs, the four of us sat down at one of Kyparissos’ small tavernas. Sitting underneath a veil of wonderfully intertwined mouries trees (mulberry trees) that line the village’s streets, we were surrounded by a group of a few elderly local gentlemen taking afternoon coffee. Here I learned more about the history of the village, the company, and the philosophy of Iliostasio’s team. Giannis Fragkiadakis, says Iliostasio means “solstice.” This naming is all the more appropriate for me since the valley below seems to be a place where the sun and time stand still. Hearing more about how Kostas, Giannis, and their colleague Muhammad run this operation is inspiring for me. The trio has grown up a thriving business out of a real experiment in nature and tradition.
I’m surprised to learn of the scientific and historical research they’ve done dittany of Crete, one of antiquity’s mythical remedies. Touring their small lab and production factory in the village we learned how the hard work in the fields is refined and carried forward into perfect herb products, packaging, branding, and a distribution network across Europe. Scientific equipment sits beside processing equipment and shelves of finished products ready for customers abroad. In short, we are taken by the scope of what is possible for just a few hands to undertake. Kostas and Giannis have endeavored to plant, cultivate, process, and package Crete’s herbal bounty under conditions as ideal as possible. When I asked about the essential oils of Dittany of Crete and other medicinals, Giannis assured me of minute differences depending on things like elevation and soils, etc. With this, I was convinced not only of the science behind their efforts but of the honesty with which most Cretans extend to strangers. I admitted to my interest in producing a special dittany product, which did not deter either Kostas or Giannis from sharing their trade secrets and methods.
This openness and the small company’s commitment to the environment says a lot about the quality of the people and their burgeoning business. Dittany, for those unfamiliar, is one of a few rare herbs that are native to Crete only. Famous since antiquity for its healing powers, the origanum dictamnus (dittany of Crete) tender perennial that is found naturally occurring in the wilds of Crete’s most inaccessible mountainous regions. One legend has it that Dittany of Crete was an instant cure for wounded soldiers and that eating the herb would make embedded arrows fall out and wounds instantaneously heal. On the more practical and modern side of medicine, researchers worldwide are working on the zigsaw puzzle surrounding the essential oils and constituents of the plant for cures from skin disorders to liver cancer. I’ll not reveal more on my own research here, but I’m certain there’s a lot more power in these rare Cretan herbs than aromatic teas and culinary magic. Judging from the ideas of the two Kyparissos farmers, the “magic” in these herbs are an ongoing experiment on Crete.
Scientists have found axes used by humans on Crete from over 130,000 years ago. Footprints from humanoids beyond 5 million years ago have been uncovered as well. To be honest, it’s thrilling to live on an island that may very well be the “Eden” from whence most of western spiritual history originated. Studying the lost medicinal potential of Crete’s past, whatever medicine recipes are hidden in the lost language of the Minoans, and meeting the extraordinary Cretans who try and recover them organically is a great adventure for me. For those readers who can use some context on this whole Crete medicine story, the island has 165 native plants with unique properties, while Germany – roughly 45 times the size of the Greek island – has only 42.
To be continued…