Saturday, January 4, 2014

Origanum dictamnus 'Dittany of Crete'

 Origanum dictmamnus 'Dittany of Crete'
As the 'Holy Grail' for herb enthusiasts and something of a 'literary celebrity' in its own right, I was pleased to finally get my hands on this plant recently, though who exactly imported it, or the seed, would be interesting to know, as often such information in the Australian horticultural trade can be a closely guarded secret. While recorded as growing in European gardens as early as 1548 by herbalist William Turner, who wrote in his The Names of Herbs that he had seen it growing in Venice and Antwerp, he did not record its presence in English gardens until his 1568 Herball in which he wrote: " I have seen Dittany growing in England in Maister Riches garden naturally, but it groweth nowhere else that I know saving only Candy" ( the old name for Crete) The Hortus Kewensis confirms Turner and lists Dittany of Crete as "cultivated in 1551 by Mr John Rich". 
Fast forward to the early 20th century, in the US, the records of The Herb Society of America pinpoint its arrival there to the year 1936, brought over from Crete by one of its members, Mrs Ellery Sedgwick. who had procured a plant there from a woman who had been her cook in New York. Up until then herb growers had only been able to see what this ancient herb looked like from the specimen in the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University which had been collected in 1846 by Theodor Von Heldreich, Director of the Athens Botanic Garden. As Mrs Sedgwick recalled "The herb was some five inches high and had five or six little labiate flowers with protruding stamens at the ends of its branches, and resembled exactly the pictures of the specimens of Dittany at the Gray Herbarium of Harvard. Interest in the plant had also been sparked by the publication of the findings by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) in his four volume Palace of Minos at Knossos (Macmillan Co. Publishers) where it was depicted on a fresco of birds perched amongst Cretan plants, this Caravanserai gave a window into the civilization of 1500 B.C..Sir Arthur was obviously a sharp eyed plantsman for he had already seen the wild plant growing in the crevices of rocks and described it as having 'rounded leaves like Pennyroyal ...lilac veined and covered with soft downy hairs, with a flower of a delicate purple hue emerging from a cluster of overlapping bracts 'and 'answering Virgil's description' In Virgil's Aeneid (29BC-19BC) Bk X11 tells of Venus helping to heal the wound of Aeneas.
"A branch of healing Dittany she brought
Which in the Cretan fields with care she sought.
Rough in the stem, which woolly leaves surround.
The leaves with flowers, the flowers with purple crowned.
Well known to goats; a sure relief
To draw the pointed steel and ease the grief."
The poem references goats which had long been observed nibbling on 'this sacred herb of Crete'  when wounded as an aid in their recovery.
So getting down to the nitty gritty of growing it in a climate which is just not like Greece in any way shape or form is a challenge. I am growing it in a pot in a mix of sand and perlite, not watering it much and keeping my fingers crossed that it survives the coastal humidity this summer. Taking cuttings to ensure a backup supply is advised for those like me who struggle to grow plants out of their comfort zone.
2017 update: Sadly lost my plant of it.

The Partridge Fresco from Pavilion of Caravanserai 
 Palace of Minos at Knossos, Crete

Theophrastus (371 BC - 287 BC)

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ian,

    I too purchased my Origanum dictamnus at the Collectors' Plant Fair after wanting one forever. In fact I bought two. Both are on the edge of a sunny rockery at Bilpin, surrounded by a collar of gravel and so far, so good. if I'm hand watering I go round them. The in formation in your blog about them is really interesting. Thank you for mentioning the date of this year's Fair, coming up in April. Who knows what more treasures we'll find!


    Peta Trahar