Herbal First Aid in Traditional Rural Corfu

There was a time, not so far away from our days, that people had to deal with accidents with what they had learned from their family elders. Traditional knowledge was based on healing thy self with plants that were growing around the place people used to live. Community healers were the people that would try to cope with more difficult situations, like bone breaking.

The most common plant used for wound healing in first aid situations was Inula viscosa. The scientific name has recently changed into Dittrichia viscosa but in all over Corfu this plant is known as “krouzia”.

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Dittrichia viscosa. Photo Credit: Eleni Christoforatou

Inula is a weed in Corfu growing in all cultivated areas and so, this plant was always close by when people had accidents while working long hours in the fields. The leaves were crushed and used as a poultice on cuts and wounds.

The hairy leaves were famous for their use as toilet paper when kids had an upset stomach after eating too many figs, mulberries or “koumara” (the fruits of the strawberry tree), as my friend Eleni Armeni remembers.

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“Koumara” or the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) fruits. Photo Credit: Eleni Christoforatou

Spiros Metallinos has shared with me that his family used to keep in a drawer a puffball mushroom to use for burns. The spores in the puffball mushroom (Lycoperdon sp.) resemble grounded coffee and modern scientific research has proven that they have strong antimicrobial properties. Shepherds in the mainland always carried this mushroom in their purse to use on wounds for themselves or their animals. The mushroom was opened when there was a need. Otherwise, it was replaced every season before it puffs and the valuable spores get lost. Other people have shared with me that the spores were infused in olive oil and were preserved as most herbal oils.

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Lycoperdon sp. Photo Credit: Eleni Martzoukou

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The spores of a puffed puff ball mushroom look like grounded greek coffee. Photo Credit: Eleni Christoforatou

Fig milk was the most common treatment for insect bites. It seems, however, that prevention was the most important mean of protection since scorpions and other venomous insects were abundant in the old stone made houses people used to live in and in the fields. Many of my friends remember their mother cooking scorpions or wasps in a cast iron pan over the fire till completely dried from all juices. The dried insects were turned into powder and were added in small doses in their morning tea.

Snake sheds were also powdered and then, they were infused in oil on medium fire to treat several skin problems. Skin problems, especially on the feet, were very common since people rarely wore shoes and they were going around barefoot.

The navel wort (Umbilicus rupestris) juice or poultice was also used to treat various skin problems, especially the ones that were hot and inflamed.

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Navel wort, Umbilicus rupestris. Photo Credit: Eleni Christoforatou

Dental issues are a nightmare for people with no access to the dentist. Unfortunately, I experienced that in our days with refugees and illegal immigrants. People will definitely try to get rid of a tooth that causes problems if there is no permanent help available. Ouzo mouth washes will numb the pain for a while but help will be needed at some point. Most people in Corfu remember their grandparents using helleborus known as “skarfi” for decaying teeth. Helleborus is a very powerful toxic plant which needs much knowledge to be used as herbal medicine. In the past, people would rinse their mouth with helleborus tea and after a while all problematic teeth would just fall. Some people say that this tea would destroy most of the teeth if used quite often and some others say that only the ones with a problem would be affected.

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Helleborus, Helleborus cyclophyllus. Photo Credit: Eleni Christoforatou

Fractures were treated by specialized healers that usually had learned this healing art by their parents. Healers touched with their fingers the wounded area to feel what happened to the bones and comparing both sides of the body, they adequately aligned the bones before immobilization. Then, the broken extremity was secured in place with a poultice made by grated olive oil soap, ouzo and an egg white. The poultice was wrapped around the leg or the hand and allowed to harden. If further immobilization was needed, canes would be tied on top. Ten days later, they would break the plaster, wash the extremity with grated olive oil soap in warm water and they would massage with olive oil. If they were happy by the result, they would suggest the patient to continue washing and massaging the area for ten more days. If the bone wasn’t completely healed, a new plaster would be applied.

The above description was given to me by Maria Faita who lived close by to a healer and enjoyed as a child to spend time with her and watch what she was doing.

The results of these therapies depended on the experience and the skillfulness of the healer. It seems that most healers, at least the ones that were known all over the island were very talented and all the people I have met that were treated by them were completely cured with no side effects.

These are the stories that people have shared with me so far. I am sure there are many more to be discovered in the future. I am missing from these cures herbs that were abundant in Corfu and famous all over the world as healing plants. I have never heard of anyone using calendula, plantain, comfrey or hawthorn although they grow all around us. We have just embarked in an amazing journey to Corfu’s healing past. Hinds and omens are given that we will have wonderful experiences as the journey goes on. There were amazing healers on this island and healers are above all beautiful people. I wish their stories will be known and we will all have the chance to learn from people that shaped their practice with the plants and the knowledge available generation be generation on this part of the earth.

 

 

 

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