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Flora and Fauna

Humans share the Earth with many other life forms, and a great variety of them exist on Crete. As you rendezvous with various plants and animals during your stay in Gavalochori, you will find some to be familiar and some not. This section is designed to introduce you to the varieties of life in the Gavalochori area.

Pigs, Crete. Luka Tica, Foundation for Gavalochori

There are almost 2,000 species of plants on Crete, with almost 200 of them native and exclusive to Crete. The variety of plants on Crete is due to a number of factors, one of which is its geographic position, which permitted the island to receive plant contributions from both central Europe and what is now Turkey.

Plants on Crete are hardy because they have to be. Only those adapted to harsh and taxing conditions survive the summer. They must be able to withstand searing temperatures, drying winds, and bright light. 

This section is not designed to provide a complete taxonomy of plants on Crete. Instead it makes note of a few of the trees, flowers, and herbs that you are likely to encounter in and near Gavalochori. The plants you will see, of course, depend on when you come to Crete. Those on the list were chosen because they are spectacular or unusual in some way, are commonly seen, or because visitors often wonder what they are.

Dittany
Dittany. HelenaH, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Dittany

This small, compact shrub with a soft woolly covering of white-gray hair grows only on Crete, usually at great heights and on steep cliffs. The ancient Greeks believed this herb was the gift of the goddess of hunting, Artemis, who used it to cure the wounds she sometimes carelessly made with her arrows. Dittany was used during Minoan times—dittany seeds were found during excavations of Knossos, and images of the plant appear on pottery from that time. It is one of the most important healing herbs of antiquity and is known to relieve symptoms of cough, digestive problems, minor skin inflammations, and bruises. It also kills bacteria and is high in antioxidants. Dittany is often associated with love and is sometimes considered an aphrodisiac because only those who are genuinely in love will risk their lives by climbing the steep cliffs and rocks where it grows to cut and offer the herb to their loved ones. Dittany’s leaves and light-purple blossoms are used to make herbal tea that is available for sale in markets throughout Crete. Because dittany is considered endangered, its wild collection is now banned, but it is commercially cultivated.

Fennel
Fennel. Eugene Zelenko, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Fennel

From the carrot family and a native of Southern Europe, the edible fennel has yellow flowers that appear in June and July amid feathery, soft green leaves. The flowers, leaves, and bulbs all can be eaten and have a sweet anise flavor. The ancient Greeks used fennel as a medicine, a food, a hunger suppressant, and an insect repellent, and a fennel tea was believed to give courage to warriors prior to battle. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus used a giant stalk of fennel to carry fire from Mount Olympus to Earth.

Lavender
Lavender. Michael Clarke, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Lavender

Lavender is a small evergreen shrub with purple flowers sparsely arranged on spikes at the tips of long bare stalks. A member of the mint family and native to the Mediterranean region, lavender is one of the most aromatic plants and is valued for its fragrant flowers and oil that are used in cooking, cosmetics, and in the making of potpourris. The ancient Greeks scented their bathing water with lavender, employed it as an insect repellent, and considered it an antidote to plant poisons. Medical benefits of lavender include improving sleep quality, healing skin blemishes, pain relief, reducing blood pressure, and alleviating the symptoms of asthma. 

Oregano
Oregano. Luigi-CC, Wikimedia Commons

Oregano

From the mint family and a native of the hills of the Mediterranean region and western Asia, oregano blooms with purple flowers throughout the summer on Crete. The ancient Greeks believed that oregano was created by the goddess Aphrodite and used the herb not only for cooking but to crown bridal couples and to bring peace to the departed. They also chewed it to ease the symptoms of rheumatism, indigestion, coughs, colds, diarrhea, and toothache. The herb is widely used in Greek cuisine, including classic lamb dishes and, of course, as the topping on Greek salads.

Rosemary
Rosemary. Sonja Foss, Foundation for Gavalochori

Rosemary

A shrub with fragrant, evergreen needle-like leaves and a strong, refreshing scent, rosemary bushes can grow as tall as 2 meters (6 feet) on Crete. It is native to the Mediterranean region, and its mauve-blue flowers bloom from November to May. Legend claims that Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, created the plant, which became a symbol of fidelity. As a result, lovers used to exchange sprigs of rosemary to promise loyalty and faithfulness. Rosemary also symbolizes remembrance and may be used in funerals to commemorate the deceased. The plant is seen to have numerous medicinal uses, and the ancient Greeks and Romans wore crowns of rosemary to enliven the mind and improve the memory. It is used as an addition in perfumes and cosmetics and is valued as a seasoning for lamb, pork, and fish. Many dishes that you can order in tavernas in and around Gavalochori feature rosemary as a seasoning. The Arismari taverna in Gavalochori is named for this plant—the word arismari is a term from the old Cretan dialect for “rosemary.”

St. John's Wort
St. John’s Wort. Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

St. John’s Wort

A shrub that has yellow star-shaped flowers with long, showy stamens in the center, St. John’s Wort blooms in the early summer on Crete. Its flowers are made into an herbal oil but putting them in a jar, covering them with olive oil, and leaving them in direct sunlight for a month or so. The oil will then have turned a ruby red, and after straining, it is stored in a dark cupboard. It is used both to treat burns, sores, and muscle aches (the Spartans were known for using this oil to care for wounds after battle) as well as to treat, anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. It is probably called St. John’s Wort because it blooms around the time of the celebration of the birth of Saint John on June 24.

Thyme
Thyme. Klearchos Kapoutsis, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commonsjpg

Thyme

An intensely aromatic herb and a natural antiseptic, thyme has bright purple flowers that bloom from late June into August on Crete. The ancient Greeks knew thyme to be an invigorating herb and believed it inspired courage. They also used thyme leaves and flowers to perfume their bathwater, and those who smelled like thyme were assumed to be elegant and refined. Thyme is used in a variety of Mediterranean dishes and is the herb that gives much of Cretan honey its special taste. 

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