HVAR’S WILD PLANTS
Hvar Island is one of the richest Adriatic islands in the diversity of its vegetation. Of some 1200 plants on Hvar which are typically Mediterranean, 44 are endemic. Throughout the summer, the island is richly scented with innumerable types of herbs, such as thyme, oregano, mint, sage and camomile among others, many of which are used as flavourings in cooking, or as refreshing teas. There are 464 types of medicinal plant on the island. Besides being used as medicines and for human, and often animal food, many of Hvar’s wild plants are melliferous, some are natural insect repellents, and many are used in cosmetics.
A FEW OF HVAR’S RICH STORE OF WILD PLANTS:
Helichrysum italicum is known as immortelle, ‘curry plant’ or ‘everlasting flower’, among other common names. It is one of some 600 species in the genus Helichrysum, which is derived from the Greek words for ‘sun’ and ‘gold’, and is part of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). Immortelle grows abundantly on Hvar on rocky ground or sandy soil, and its yellow flowers do indeed shine with golden light during the flowering season under the summer sun. It favours dry places where few other plants thrive, and grows readily in abandoned vineyards and alongside paths.
The etheric oil produced from immortelle flowers is reputed to rejuvenate the skin, remove ageing lines from the face, heal external and internal wounds, revitalize the liver and the nervous system, and protect the body from free radicals. The rare and expensive etheric oil produced from the plant is rich in substances which are effective for regenerating the tissues, soothing dry, tired or sunburned skin, and healing wounds, stretch marks and bruises. There are records from Homer’s time showing that the Ancient Greeks used immortelle for these skin problems. In Croatia old folk songs celebrate the fragrant immortelle flower as an adornment for young men and women.
Immortelle products such as facial creams, bath salts and aromatherapy lotions are in great demand. For that reason, immortelle has been cultivated commercially for some years on Hvar. Just a few drops in a diffuser, in the bath, in massage oils, or in an inhaler will fill your home with energy from the sun and the scent of summer. Immortelle oil an be readily combined with the majority of etheric oils, especially lavender, camomile and citrus.
Immortelle flowers from April to July, and forms a dense compound inflorescence. Harvesting is done when the flowers begin to open. When picked, the flowers last for quite a long time, retaining their colour and their aroma redolent of the sunny seaside slopes. Tea made from immortelle flowers is used against coughs and chronic bronchitis, also to lower the blood pressure. It is a good tonic for reviving one’s organism from tiredness or exhaustion. In cooking, it is sometimes used as a condiment.
Please note, although immortelle grows wild on Hvar, it is a protected plant, and a permit is required for anyone wanting to pick it. There are strict rules about harvesting it, in order to prevent it from being picked to extinction. Because it is so highly prized, commercial plantations of immortelle have grown up on Hvar in the past few years, which has helped to prevent the depletion of the wild plants.
Laurel bushes and trees are to be found all over the island, not only in the maquis, but in parks and gardens. It is widely used to flavour foods in cooking, and not only does it enhance the taste, but it also helps digestion. From the earliest times, the strongly scented leaves of the laurel have been added, fresh or dried, in cooking vegetables, meat, roasts, lentils and even desserts. For instance, for desserts, it is the custom for dried figs and quince cheese (jelly) to be prepared with laurel leaves.
Laurel is evergreen and has dark green leaves and small, very dark blue berries. Etheric oil or fixed oil can be made from it. The various forms of laurel are used as a medicine, in cosmetics and as a natural insecticide against mosquitoes and ants.
As laurel is easily shaped, it is often planted as a decorative (and useful) bush or tree. In Ancient Greek times it was dedicated to Apollo, and the laurel wreath was awarded as a distinction to poets and heroes who had earned honour. The Romans took on the custom, and it has passed through to modern times: a laureate is a person who has received special honour for achievements, especially in the fields of literature and science, but also military feats.
Aromatic wild fennel is widespread in fields and especially on uncultivated land. Its fresh or dried leaves, seeds and etheric oil are added to food, liqueurs and sweets. The whole plant is strongly scented and medicinal, and its uses as a food, flavouring or medicine date back to the long past. For Hvar islanders a sprig of fennel is an essential addition to spring vegetable mixtures or young broad beans.
Fennel etheric oil is used for making liqueurs, candies and other sweets. In North Macedonia and Greece it is the basis for a national alcoholic, and in Croatia it is often added to the herbal brandy called ‘travarica’. A kind of ‘mastic’, known locally as ‘meštro’, ‘meštral’ or ‘mistro’, is made from sugar, water, rakija (local brandy) and extract of fennel and aniseed. Adding few drops to water turns the water cloudy, then white, to make a refreshing drink for quenching the thirst in summertime.
If you walk around Hvar Island in the springtime you will be enthralled by the silvery-green plants with abundant, intensely fragrant, purple flowers which will line your path. This is sage (Latin, salvia), of which there are some 500 different types, with about 15 growing naturally in Croatia. In Dalmatia the most widespread is the medicinal common or golden sage (salvia officinalis), where its flowers are extremely attractive to bees. It is a staple in Dalmatian cooking: sage flowers are used for a sweet syrup, the leaves for tea, and the etheric oil is added as a flavouring to beverages, candies and chewing gum. Sage also has a special role in cosmetics and aromatherapy. Medicinally, it is said to be beneficial for chest problems.
Warning: sage, especially as a tea, should only be ingested in small amounts, as it has a high ketone content which can be neurotoxic if taken in any quantity.
Oregano, (Latin ‘origanum vulgare’) which is well known to most people as a flavouring in pizzas and similar foods, grows wild on Hvar. It is known in Croatian as ‘origano’, ‘mažuran’ or ‘mravinac’. In Roman times, it was known to repel ants, which are ‘mravi’ in Croatian, and this gave rise to its local name.
Wild oregano, when dried, has a much more intense aroma than any you might buy in a packet in a shop. It imparts a particular taste to a variety of dishes: those prepared with salted sardines (the ‘pogača’, a Dalmatian version of pizza), sardines grilled over the barbecue and tomato sauce, with or without meat.
Oregano is a spice as well as a melliferous and medicinal plant, and it has been known since ancient times. Oregano etheric oil has a wide range of applications in aromatherapy, but should only be used under the guidance of a qualified therapist, as large doses can cause irritation. Nowadays alternative medicine practitioners recommend its use as an antidote to colds and fever.
The Latin name for rosemary is Salvia rosmarinus, although it was previously known by the scientific name Rosmarinus officinalis, which means ‘sea mist, or ‘sea dew’. In Croatian the usual name is ‘ružmarin’, but an alternative which is widely used on Hvar is ‘zimorad’. It grows wild on Hvar, but is also cultivated in gardens and parks because of its hardiness, attractiveness to bees, resistance to pests and illnesses, and its possible role in deterring plant pests.
In ancient mythology, rosemary was dedicated to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. On Hvar, harvesting and selling medicinal rosemary started as long ago as the 15th century. Rosemary leaves are often used to flavour foods because of their particular aroma. A traditional belief holds that the smell of rosemary helps the memory and concentration, and cures headaches, by stimulating the circulation and the flow of blood to the brain.