Sunday, 5 February 2012


The early purple orchid is native to Europe including the British Isles, North-West Africa, the Middle East and western and northern Asia. It is one of the Orchidaceae family from which the drink salep is made. This is a starchy drink made from the dried and powdered tuber of a number of orchid types, but this one grows in Britain, where it was used in salep shops in London in the 17th century and later.
  There are two similar orchids which are native to the British Isles, this one, Orchis mascula, which flowers between mid-April and mid-June and Orchis maculata. The latter flowers later in June and July, and has reddish spots, (which gives rise to the common name for this the spotted orchid) with a tuber which is in two or three parts, earning it the title Dead Men’s Fingers. This one gets a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Gertrude the queen and Hamlet’s mother sees the dead Ophelia with them on her robe:-
 “Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them…” (Act 4, scene 7)
(Crow-flowers were the name of buttercups.)
  In Ayurvedic medicine this Orchis mascula, the Early Purple orchid is used not only for the root’s nutritious farinaceous properties, but also it is used as an aphrodisiac. The powdered root can be made into a kind of gel which is also used for gastro-intestinal problems as it is mucilaginous and useful for diarrhoea.  Its nutritional qualities make this an ideal food for invalids who are convalescing as well as for children.
  It has been used as a substitute for arrowroot and has similar qualities. Salep, being a warming winter drink is substituted for coffee in countries which do not have a coffee-drinking tradition.
  One part salep powder to fifty parts of water makes the gel for internal use. The root should be harvested after the seeds have fallen and well after it has flowered. It contains the minerals potassium and calcium among others and research carried out by Aziz, N. et al, has shown that it is antihypertensive, so can lower blood pressure, is anti-dyslipidemic, so can control fats and cholesterol from building up in the body, and it also helps regulate the single layer of cells which line the organs and cavities of the heart. This one piece of research was published in Hypertension Research, Vol. 32 (11) pp 997-1003 in 2009, “Antihypertensive, antidyslipidemic and endothelial modulating effects of Orchis mascula.” The paper concludes “…further studies are required to identify the active constituents of this plant.”
  Nicholas Culpeper writing in the 17th century had this to say of the plant and Orchis maculata: -
“Government and virtues. They are hot and moist in operation, under the dominion of Dame Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly, which, they say, the dried and withered roots do restrain. They are held to kill worms in children; as also, being bruised and applied to the place, to heal the king's evil.”
The “dried and withered roots” were supposed to stop lust and any unlawful sex. The name Orchis comes from the name of the son of a nymph and a satyr who insulted (possible raped) a priestess of Bacchus; for his crime he was turned into an orchid. The fresh roots were used to promote true love in witches’ potions. Dioscorides writing in 79 AD records that eating the tubers could determine the sex of a couple’s unborn baby.
  Whatever the case, they are pretty plants, although their smell doesn’t match their appearance as they have an unpleasant odour during the evening, although some are odourless. Best stay downwind of these flowers! Follow the link for our recipe for salep.

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