Aromatic herbs have always been a staple in Greek diet and everyday life —especially considering the country’s rich and unique flora. And as scientists are reevaluating their uses and medicinal benefits, Greek herbs are praised for their quality and organoleptic characteristics.
Story: Vana Antonopoulou
With some 7,500 different plants and herbs (approximately 1,200 are endemic to Greece, while about 20% are aromatic or medicinal plants), and due to the country’s unique climate and rich soil conditions, Greek flora is one of the most exceptional in the world. In fact, according to international references, Greece ranks third in the world in biodiversity, and among the top five countries with the greatest wealth of aromatic plants. In light of this, Greek herbs show remarkable quality standards (percentage in essential oils, ratio of active substances, etc.) that affect their flavor and aroma as well as their action, especially when used for medicinal purposes.
Aromatic plants produced in the fertile Greek land are of top-tier quality, while their nutritional and soothing value is scientifically acknowledged by numerous research papers from international Institutions. In addition, growing conditions and harvesting methods in Greece promote GMO-free organic farming, ensuring that all herbs are gathered at their optimum and, as a result, are packed with more active ingredients and flavor than other herbs found elsewhere in the world.
“Greek herbs are not only different but in many cases they are unique, in the sense that many of them are endemic to our country and are found only here in Greece. Nowadays, there are many growers who experiment with lesser known species and seek the suitable markets that will absorb them (ie plants for exclusive use by the pharmaceutical or cosmetics industry)”, states Mr Nikos Hatziandreou, owner-operator of Organic Islands established on the Greek island of Naxos, while Mr Ioannis Kantes of Raikan Herbs, a company from Komotini in northern Greece marketing aromatic plants and therapeutical herbs, explains that “their excellent quality is due to the ideal climate conditions in the country. The quantities of herbs produced in Greece are limited, while their demand in the international market and the quantities consumed, is constantly increasing”.
A booming industry
Despite their small quantities when compared with the amount produced in other countries (approximately 8,000 acres of land are currently planted with aromatic herbs, whereas 50 percent of this area is exclusively dedicated to the farming of oregano), Greek herbs have all the essential qualities to travel to world markets. And even though plants with known properties (e.g. oregano, mountain tea, Chios mastiha, camomile, and Kozani red saffron) are still high in consumer preference and exported all around the world –especially in the EU, Australia, Germany, France, Canada, Denmark, and the U.S.– others, such as lemon verbena (great for weight-loss) or echinacea (promoted as a flu and cold remedy) have also seen an increase in production.
“Experts and those in the know, appreciate the superiority of Greek aromatic herbs”, affirms Ms Afrodite Florou, co-founder Anassa Organics, a Greek company producing organic teas and tisanes with original flavors. “Unfortunately we have not promoted, as it should, the quality of Greek herbs and the majority of people across the world do not know enough about them”.
“Their demand, however, is constantly increasing. Even so, at this point, the quantities of aromatic plants cultivated in Greece do not suffice to cover large markets which consume tons of herbs for beverages and for the production of pharmaceuticals, food supplements or cosmetics”, she concludes.
“We still do not have a clear picture regarding the varieties and quantities of each herb cultivated in Greece. Of course it is true that growers have high preference for some well-known herbs such as oregano and mountain tea, as they are easier to market.”
Mr Hatziandreou concurs. “I believe we still do not have a clear picture regarding the varieties and quantities of each variety cultivated in Greece. Of course it is true that growers have high preference for some well-known herbs such as oregano and mountain tea, as they are easier to market”.
It is particularly important that aromatic herbs are grown in ideal rather than marginal conditions so the proportion of their active components is maximized. Advocates for organic farming insist that conditions more closely approximating those of the wild are best for growing herbs, because the use of pesticides and herbicides can alter the plants’ components thereby altering their flavor. In Greece, herbs are farmed in natural conditions and although most plants can be cultivated, the majority is collected by hand from the wild. In both instances, herbs harvested in Greece are organic, GMO-free, and their quality is second to none.
As demand for teas and infusions with interesting and exotic flavors grows, a burgeoning industry to support this need has also developed. The processed herb industry is mostly made up of companies that dry, process, package, and deliver the produce to the Greek and international markets. These companies are usually supplied by contract growers. Meanwhile, a smaller but constantly expanding market exists for bio-dynamically and organically grown herbs, both dried and fresh. A trend that has influenced many young people to get actively involved in the herb-growing business, securing the future of aromatic plants in Greece.
Unique flavors travel to international markets
With a plethora of aromatic herbs, the Greek industry is bound to experiment with different flavors and blends. Hence the unlimited number of innovative seasonings, teas and infusions that were developed to fit consumer tastes. Whether the intent is great flavor or medicinal use, the secret is in the mix; St John’s wort, orange, hyssop, lavender, pennyroyal, dittany, wild rose, rockrose, marjoram, melissa, tilia, fennel, etc. are but a small portion of the thousands of plants with nutritive or healing properties that produce different combinations to fill customers’ cups with enjoyment, relaxation, vitality, harmony. Blends are selected according to traditional practices that go back millennia alongside modern scientific documentation, in order to offer tasty and creative ways to bring the healing power of plants into our daily routine.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all parts of the economy, as well as exports. This phenomenon concerns not only Greece but the global markets as well, as shops, restaurants and cafes were and, in many countries, still are closed. Demand for Greek herbs from foreign markets has subsequently dropped. However, the pandemic has also created new data, dictated by the change in lifestyle. Consumers are looking for high quality products and we believe that that’s exactly what we’ll be facing in the future”, specifies Ms Florou, while admitting that “We could conquer part of the global markets with well-designed products aimed at consumers with high requirements. The emphasis should be on quality, not quantity. After all, the extraordinary, is usually hard to find and, therefore, highly valued. Just like Greek herbs”.