On a Rugged Greek Island, an Herbal Scientist Follows the Path of His Ancestors
By ROB WATERS
It’s mid-afternoon on the Greek island of Amorgos on one of the longest and hottest days of the year, and Vangelis Vassalos is headed out to harvest. Vassalos, who is compact and wiry at 61, wears a floppy white hat to protect his bronzed scalp from the midday sun as he walks a few hundred yards from his herb shop in the village of Lagkada. He opens a gate (used mostly to keep out goats) and strides to the middle of a small field, a small folding sickle in his hands.
For most plants, midafternoon would be the least desirable time for a harvest. But it’s the perfect time to collect Hypericum perforatum, or St. John’s wort, long known for its antidepressant and anti-infective properties. “This is the plant of the sun,” Vassalos says, squatting alongside a thick green shrub topped by small yellow flowers, which he methodically trims, careful not to take too much. “The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and midday is the maximum power of the sun. This herb, especially the blossoms, is like a solar panel. It captures the heat energy of the sun.”
Amorgos, an island of only 2,000 permanent residents, is known for herbs and plants that are unusually abundant, and unusually potent. Its unique microclimate—dry, hot summers, limited rainfall, rocky terrain, and windy conditions—creates “very strong herbs, very intense,” Vassalos says, with extremely high levels of essential oils—the chemical essence, or active ingredient, in any herb. And sure enough, a study by a University of Massachusetts researcher found that sage plants grown in 100 percent sunlight contained higher levels of essential oils than those grown in less sunny climes.
Back at his shop, Vassalos holds up a basket of wild sage—Salvia triloba—that he picked yesterday, pointing out the way its leaves are unusually small and curly, a feature that he says allows them to retain a modicum of moisture. “It has to survive nine months without rain,” he says. “In order to survive, it has to become strong.”
The intensity of the essential oils in herbs that bees will graze upon is also what makes honey in Amorgos and many parts of Greece so potent, and so laden with phytochemicals containing antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. It also give Vassalos, a scientist trained in botany and neurophysiology, excellent materials for making medicinal extracts.
Vassalos has been gathering and studying herbs and medicinal plants in Amorgos since he was a child, learning from his mother (who he calls “a natural botanist”) and other elders. “From a young age,” Vassalos says, “kids of my generation were exposed to the use of plants by parents and grandparents who knew how to cook with the plants, to make tea and to heal themselves with the plants.”
His mother, Irene, still going strong at age 91, helps Vassalos and his wife, Eleni, tend to the family’s herb store. Often taking a perch on a chair outside the front door, clad in a black dress and black babushka, she still advises her son about the island’s plants. As a child, she, too, learned from her parents and grandparents.
Of some 600 species of plants that grow on Amorgos, Vassalos’s mother can count 65 that can be used in food. “This is a paradise for vegetarians,” he says.
His mother, Vassalos says, knows nothing about locavores or the farm-to-table movement of American foodies, but she eats only natural food and nothing out of season. “Anything that’s imported, she won’t touch,” he says. And nothing out of season. “She’s very proud that she has never drunk Coca-Cola in her life.” Her favorite herb? Rosemary, which she uses to make tea. (While rosemary might make for a bitter drink, it has been shown to have a wide range of antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.)
Other elders also serve as mentors or sources of inspiration. His great-aunt was a midwife who delivered many people born on the island. (She was away when Vassalos was born, so her sister, who also had some training, pitched in.) Herbal knowledge seems to have run in Vassalos’s family. His great aunt was as a nurse, and went on to become a healer, using both herbs and modern medical techniques. Vassalos used his own interests in the power of herbs to earn a scholarship in England, to study both neurophysiology and Chinese medicine.
Today, Vassalos combines local wisdom with modern research. For example, while sage grows all over the island, locals know when and where to find the most potent variants. In his home, Vassalos now maintains a distillation laboratory, comprising two large steel tanks that look like typical water heaters, and which function as what Vassalos calls the “spa.” With the press of a button, an electric motor on a cable moves around on an overhead track.
Vassalos positions the motor over one of the tanks, clips the cable onto a hook and raises a huge basket full of sage. Suddenly a tea-like scent wafts out of the tank. While the sage has been soaking, for two and a half hours, it’s been sending steam up a pipe to the top of a tank. Much like a spirits distiller, Vassalos’ contraption is designed to condense the steam, which drips into a glass flask. In this case, the final product is a clear, watery liquid—called hydrosol, or flower water—and, floating above it, a dark, viscous liquid, the essential oil of sage. In another flask, used for distilled lemon peel, the floating oil is almost transparent.
The yield from this process is vanishingly small: From 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of sage, Vassalos will extract just 150 to 200 milliliters (5 to 7 ounces) of essential oil and ten liters (2.6 gallons) of hydrosol. And that, Vassalos says, “is why pure essential oils are so expensive.”
From their roadside store, Vassalos and Eleni sell their oils, hydrosols, and dried herbs to locals and adventurous tourists who make their way to Amorgos in spring and summer. He also treats patients with herbs and acupuncture. He’s also part historian, documenting the folk knowledge of his elders as he studies the properties of the plants and oils. “My primary interest is how the old people treated themselves with plants,” he says. “I want to register that knowledge before it becomes lost.”