The last of this season’s wild orchids are coming into flower here now, while in parts of southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East some species are threatened with extinction as tubers are dug up to produce cures for everyday complaints and erectile dysfunction

The ancestry of orchids goes back to ancient Greece when the word orchis – to describe the plant’s tuber – meant testicle. This was at a time when plants were used to cure parts of the body that they resembled. A connection was made between the root system of an orchid and a suitable treatment to help an impotent man.

As speculation progressed, the presence of an orchid was attributed to copulating animals and the point where semen had accidentally fallen on the ground. Another theory hypothesized that the root of an orchid could determine the sex of a man’s off-spring. Chauvinism, being particularly prevalent at the time, it was alleged that men who ate whole new tubers would produce healthy male children. Eating shriveled old tubers resulted in girls!

Wild orchids…wild claims?

By the 17th century ,herbalists went one step further claiming that “fat firm tubers should be eaten with discretion as they provoke exceeding.”  Today for most people it sounds like far-fetched folklore but certain beliefs continue to exist. Google the words ‘impotence – cure – orchid-roots’ and there are plenty of advertisements claiming that they can prevent nightfall and improve a man’s sexual drive and stamina. Even more remarkably it is said that salep – made from orchid tubers –can improve oligospermia (low sperm count) and oligozoospermia (sperm motility).

Salep is an Arabic word meaning ‘testicles of the fox’ and refers to a drink made from pulverized orchid tubers, sugar, ground cinnamon, ginger and milk. Particularly enjoyed in Turkey and Greece, where it is believed to promote good health and fertility, it is often sold by street vendors. Over the years its popularity has resulted in the virtual extinction of some wild orchids in the Pindus Mountains.

Once the tubers are destroyed, orchids have difficulty in reproducing. Their microscopic seeds that appear like dust contain no food reserves. A seedling only forms when it is infected by a fungus that supplies it with sugar and other nutrients.

In the Algarve during the month of June, Pyramidal, Lax-Flowered and Green-winged orchids come into bloom as part of their reproductive cycle but digging up the tubers or picking the flowers is highly detrimental.  When it comes to curing the flagging sex life of a local man, Viagra is an environmentally preferable option!

Proof, or no proof

Despite the continuing destruction of orchids, it is unclear if they have any scientifically proven medicinal properties. A study in Iran involving mice injected with salep, found their testosterone levels and sperm production increased. But from mice to men requires a huge leap of faith. Another team of scientists claimed to have found a novel aphrodisiac and went onto produce a drug from the flowers of an orchid, Vanda Tessellatta. This epiphytic variety with aerial roots increased the level of nitric oxide in human blood but experiments did not prove its efficacy in combating penile dysfunction.

Despite the lack of concrete evidence, the sale of salep powder has increased. This reflects an international trend towards organic foodstuffs and alternative medicines. Salep proudly proclaims it is made from 35 varieties of authentic orchids and that as many as 4,000 tubers have been used to manufacture a single kilo of powder. What is not made clear is that some of the orchids are grown commercially but others are harvested from the wild.

Eight percent of all plants belong to the Orchidaceae family, making it one of the largest plant groups in the world. Of 25,000 species, all varieties are shown on the CITES list, Appendix I & II (cites.org) making many of them as endangered as African elephants and gorillas.

The Algarve is home to a number of distinctive groups. The small Ophrys orchids have flowers that resemble bees and flies. They have beautiful intricate markings and easily hybridize with each other resulting in variable forms that are hardier than some other wild orchids. This ability for orchids to cross pollinate also explains why there are so many cultivated varieties.

Seen in early spring in the Algarve’s damper places, Serapia orchids look like miniature gladiolus with several flowers growing from a single stem. More spectacular Orchis Italica has a cluster of pale pink flowers each one resembling a tiny monkey. Its close relative, Orchis Lutea has clusters of small white flowers with long fine pointed sepals. These give the plant an overall appearance of being covered in whiskers. I’m not sure – but maybe this orchid has been utilized by men who can’t grow beards.

Words: Carolyn Kain

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