3. Geographical and Historical Framework: The island of Corfu

Corfu is an island on the northwest border of Greece. It stands between the Greek mainland, Albania and Italy. It is surrounded from the small islets of Othoni, Ereikousa, Mathraki and the islands of Paxos and Antipaxos further south.

Corfu’s highest mountains are Pantokrator (the ancient Istoni) (906 m) situated to the north and Agioi Deka (573 m), in the southeast. In the middle of the island, there is a plain called the Ropa Valley. There are plenty of wetlands scattered here and there: streams, rivers, lakes and coastal lagoons. The dunes of Lake Korrision and the saltpans in Lefkimi are unique and beautiful ecosystems.

Many of the naturally occurring ecosystems of Corfu are protected areas under Natura 2000 or designated as “Special Protection Areas” under the European Union Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds. Unfortunately, the protection status awarded to them and their environmental significance haven’t managed to protect them from the threat of being sold to international companies that will exploit them for their touristic potential, threatening their beauty and their importance as wildlife refuges.

The unique Corfiot olive grove, although protected by law, experiences constant threat to its fundamental character.

The climate is typically Mediterranean with plenty of rain in the winter and hot dry summers.

A wide variety of ecosystems offering habitats with different characteristics to all forms of life are the reason for the great diversity of plants, birds, insects, reptiles and mammals that exist on the island.

The plant communities create a rich flora that totals some fourteen hundred species. Exceptional among them are the many orchid species which can be found all around Corfu.

Traces of people living on the island date back to the Neolithic period with many significant findings in caves, some of which can be seen at the Archaeological Museum in Corfu town. In a settlement dating from the 7th millennium BC in Sidari, wild harvested elderberries and sea buckthorn fruits were found. There is no evidence so far if they were used as food or medicine. Since then, agriculture has formed and shaped the island’s vegetation with terraced fields at high altitudes (mostly abandoned today) and enormous olive groves that dominate the landscape.

The relationship between plants and the locals departs from linear time and enters myth with the account of Media, one of the most ancient herbal healers, visiting Corfu.

One can easily trace in her name the root of the prefix med, which exists in all words that have to do with medicine.

The ancient Greek word Media (Μήδεια) comes from the verb midome (μήδομαι), which means “I think, I have in mind, I find solutions” and also, “I care, I invent, I produce, I make”.

The ancient Greek root mid (μηδ) became med in Latin and accompanies words like medicabilis, medicina, medicinalis etc.

All of the aforementioned meanings of the word (treat, care, think, invent, produce, make, find solutions, poison, magic, cosmetic, remedy) have to do with Media, the ancient wise woman. Media’s lover’s name is also connected with healing since Iasonas (Ιάσωνας – Jason) is a word derived from the word iasi (ίαση) which means “healing”. The Greek word iatros (ιατρός) which means “doctor” derives from the same root. Jason studied herbal medicine with the centaur Cheiron before his journey to Colchis.

As described in the poem “Argonautica” by Apollonius of Rhodes, Jason and Media sailed to Corfu pursued by the ships of Media’s father, King Aeetes. Corfiots welcomed the couple, but soon the soldiers of Colchis arrived and asked Corfu’s King Alcinous to decide on the couple’s fate since tradition didn’t allow two foreign armies (the Colchis and the Argonauts) to give battle on Corfiot territory. The couple got married during the night under the protection of the Queen, and from that point on they were officially together.

The wedding took place in a cave with two entrances, which until 300 BC was still called “Media’s Sacred Cave”. This is the same cave in which the nymph Makris also found refuge after secretly raising the baby god Dionysus. In order to thank Makris for her help, Media offered her and her sisters eternal youth by replacing all the blood in their bodies with a magic potion.

That was the first recorded healing act to take place on the island of Corfu and, furthermore, at the hands of one of the most famous herbal medicine women of antiquity.

One century went by and Corfu is mentioned again in one of the most famous epic poems of mankind, Homer’s “Odyssey”. The garden of the palace of King Alcinous has the most beautiful trees: pears, pomegranates, apples, figs, olive trees. There is also an excellent vineyard and a place where the grapes are laid down under the sun to be made into raisins. Beautiful flowers are arranged everywhere.

The island of Scheria, the mythical home of the Phaeacians where Odysseus found refuge and help to return to Ithaca is Corfu according to the legend and we can trace even back then, the love that Corfiots still have for plants. All of the plants mentioned above still exist on the island and most of them are traditionally used as medicine.

In later years, botanists from all over Europe visited Corfu taking notes and drawing the wild plants. In 1814, “Flora Corcirensis” was printed in Italian, written by the Doctor Michael Trivoli Pierri, describing more than 1,000 plants growing on the island. Pierri was a professor at the Ionian Academy, the first academic institution established in Greece. The Ionian Academy started in 1824 and was located in Corfu. A botanical garden was organized with more than 4,000 local plants for the needs of the students of the Medical School. Unfortunately, nothing remains of this garden nowadays and no other information is available about it.

In the present day, the island’s vegetation suffers from the extensive use of strong chemical weed killers and pesticides. There is an on-going crisis around the local authorities’ inability to dispose effectively of the island’s refuse, reaching particularly high levels in the summer and polluting both the earth and the water, which has at least moved the locals to take action to find solutions. The island is in danger from what is the real impact of the financial crisis: no state mechanism really exists and can work effectively. Furthermore, the land and much of the other resources are increasingly being sold off for international companies to exploit. It seems that the next time people have to rely on plants to survive, they may not be there anymore… However, many locals are fighting in any way they can to save the land and save any bits of knowledge on how to live in harmony with the land, no matter what the future holds…