Monday, 18 April 2011

Orchids: what are they good for?

The word orchid is derived from the Greek word for testicle.  If you've had an orchiectomy, you’ve had a ball (or two) surgically removed.  Most terrestrial orchids grow from a seasonal bulb, so there’s this year’s one that flowers now, and next year’s one that will flower then.  Dig up an orchid and there are two small ovoid bulbs, like a pair of, well, you get the picture.
If you subscribe to the medieval Doctrine of Signatures (and surprisingly many people still do), you’d think orchids should cure all manner of sexual ills, like sterility and erectile dysfunction.  If you subscribe to the homeopathic doctrine of like-cures-like, maybe they’d even be considered useful contraceptives.
So what orchid products are available?  Surprisingly few as it turns out, considering the Orchidaceae is one of the largest families of flowering plants.
I can think of only two commercial products from orchids.
Vanilla is made from the seed pods of the vanilla orchid, mostly Vanilla planifolia, although a couple of other species are grown too.  You can buy cheap synthetic vanilla too, which is a wood by-product.  Vanilla’s an important crop in Tahiti and the Cook Islands, though Vanilla is native to Mexico.
The other orchid crop is less known in most parts of the world.  Salep is an orchid product that’s popular in Turkey and places where Turkish people have moved to, like Germany.  It’s made as a sweet milky drink from ground up orchid bulbs.  But the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations prohibit international trade in orchids, so salep can’t be exported from Turkey to expatriate Turks in Germany and other countries.  As a result, a starch-based substitute has been developed, but it’s not the real thing according to aficionados.  This account of salep preparation is from an excellent Turkish food blog that I follow. 
Given that some of our native New Zealand terrestrial orchids grow like weeds (I’m thinking particularly of Microtis, seeds pictured), wouldn’t it be fun to see if their bulbs can be used to make salep?  (Note added 19 April 2011: Never harvest orchids or other native plants from the wild; the populations aren't likely to be sustainable, and in many areas such collecting is illegal.  But onion orchids (Microtis) pop up often enough in gardens and can be harvested there.)
All orchids have masses of tiny seeds like this.  The seeds don't have an endosperm when they're mature, and they're dispersed on the wind like dust.

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