Before the days of green juices, intermittent fasting, and the bone broth craze, Greeks had one simple solution to detox your body after a pig-out—have a fresh plate of boiled horta doused in lemon and olive oil. Horta is a catch-all term for wild grasses and weeds that grow in fields, by the coasts and on the waysides. The umami-rich and slightly bitter leaves and stems of these leafy greens have been a part of the Greek diet since ancient times and sustained generations of Greeks through wars and periods of famine. Herbalists often praise them to the high hills for their antioxidant qualities and calming effect on the digestive system. Meanwhile, in traditional Greek village life, horta-collecting was done by women, who took those hours out in the fields as a time to talk with their sisters, cousins, and friends away from male surveillance.
Today, horta is still collected wild, but most urbanites get their fill from supermarkets, the laiki (neighborhood farmer’s markets), or ready-cooked from tavernas or magiria (diners that dish up home-cooked comfort food). The most common hortas on the market are members of the dandelion family, particularly radikia (chicory). Radikia are marked by their long, arrow-like leaves, while Italiki radikia (a breed from Italy) have long, purple-red stems and are popular for their milder flavor. Another popular horta is vlita (purple amaranth), a green with wide leaves and thick stems.
Greeks also love stamnagathi (spiny chicory), a star-shaped green with many thin, short stems and spiny leaves that has a very mild flavor and the texture of noodles when boiled. It’s greatly used in the cuisines of Crete and the Peloponnese, where it grows in abundance by the sea (in the Crete of yore, they used to use sprigs of raw stamnagathi to cover the openings of their water jugs).
Because horta is hardy enough to grow in any climate or terrain (even on mountaintops and between rocks), there are all kinds of regional varieties. Zohos (sow thistle) has prickled leaves and grows between radikia in the wild, where it’s often picked to be cooked into fricassee and pies. Vrouves or sinapi (mustard greens) fill spring fields with small yellow flowers and have many varieties with a wide range of flavors.
But in Greek cuisine, even the weediest greens have their uses—tsouknida (stinging nettle) is cooked into pies and soups, where it’s rich in B-carotene and iron (boiling gets rid of the sting; just be sure to wear gloves when washing them raw).
Where to Buy: Raw horta can be bought at supermarkets, greengrocers, and farmer’s markets (some of the wilder breeds, such as tsouknida, can only be found in farmer’s markets). Once bought, they just need to be washed, boiled in water for about 20 minutes until soft and wilted, and doused with lemon juice and olive oil. When ordering horta at a taverna, you’ll see it either listed in the salads or starters as either horta, horta vrasta, or by its specific plant name (like vlita or stamnagathi). You may also find them in a pie as hortopita. We don’t recommend picking horta in the wild, as there’s a risk of accidentally picking poisonous plants, or greens polluted by pesticides, car exhaust, and animals. If you’re served horta collected by your yiayia or by residents of a village, however, don’t worry about it—they know the best places where horta has been picked for generations.