A Flora and Fauna of Symi

A personal guide to the wildlife of Symi and beyond

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The House Leek

March 12, 2014

The following is an excerpt by Gwen Drews from a web site called “North Star Herbals” (with permission).

“The House Leek, most commonly known as “Hens and Chickens”, may look like a humble little ground cover plant but its appearance betrays it’s rather noble history. The Greeks believed it was a gift from the god Jupiter to protect against lightning, thunder, fire, and curses. As far back as the 4th century B.C. it was recorded as a common feature on the roofs and walls of dwellings by the Greek botanist, Theophrastus.

During the dark ages in Europe, the use of herbal medicine was driven underground by papal edict. The official stand of the Pope was that disease was caused by evil spirits and could only be cured by the church. The natural world was considered corrupt and separate from the sacred. This belief, prevalent from the 5th to the 8th century A.D., finally eased in the 9th century A.D.

In the 9thcentury A.D., the medieval emperor of Europe, Charlemagne, assisted with the resurgence of the use of plants to ease suffering and illness. His castles were scattered over Europe and he ordered each to contain a medicinal herb garden. This may have served Charlemagne well, as he lived to the age of 72 during a time period when life expectancy was in the 40’s. Monasteries during this time period also planted their own medicinal gardens, and the knowledge that was driven underground slowly resurfaced.

It is unknown exactly how Charlemagne became aware of the Greek belief in the power of the House Leek. What is known is that he ordered that it be grown on every roof in his vast empire as a form of insurance against house fires and lightning strikes. Centuries later, when the pilgrims and immigrants came to the "New World" they brought the house leek with them and planted them on or near their houses, believing them to bring good luck. The mythology surrounding the plant faded into history. As a succulent, the hardy and compact little plant travelled the oceans well on their way to the "New World“, needing little by way of water or soil.

The historic medicinal uses of the plant are very similar to the more familiar Aloe Vera plant of the tropics. The House Leek was mashed, the mucilage (moist, gelatinous substance within the leaf) could be applied directly to burns, skin irritations, scrapes, and open wounds to ease the pain and promote the growth of new skin. It was also rumoured to cure warts. The mashed leaf soothed sore throats and sore gum tissue in the mouth when made into an infusion. As to its actual effects on lightning; we may never know but it certainly gave people a safe excuse to have this handy little first aid plant around when critics of the healing powers of the natural world came around to snoop in the gardens of peasants and emperors alike. Modern herbalists also know that this should not be taken internally in large amounts or undiluted by water as it may cause diarrhoea when used in excess. No other precautions are known about the use of this little plant with such an interesting story.”

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