Orchids Orchids

Orchids (Orchidaceae) define "pretty - but pretty useless" in the plant world. They vie with Daisies for title as the largest family of plants with more than 800 genera and almost 30,000 species. Of those only two genera encompassing a very few species have any use as food - and those only as flavorings for desserts.



General & History

Orchids live in most climates on every continent except Antarctica. The family belongs to the order Asparagales (Asparagus) which belongs to the class Liliopsida (Lilies (monocots)). This may seem odd, but that's the way the DNA crumbles.

Orchids are a pretty odd lot anyway. Those that live in temperate zones are like regular plants with roots and stems and chlorophyll, but aren't much noted for flowers. Others live on bare rocks surviving on air, water and whatever litter blows or washes their way. The majority are tropical and live up in trees anchored by aerial roots and never touch the ground. These roots also gather moisture and such nutrients as may wash down the tree, but they are not parasites. A few have no chlorophyll and depend on fungus to digest food for them.


Salep - [Orchis mascula and other species]
Salep Orchid

Several orchids that grow wild and cultivated in Turkey are prized for their root tubers. These tubers are ground up to produce a starch-like polysaccharide used to make a dessert drink called "salep" - once used as far away as England and Germany before the arrival of coffee and tea.

Today salep is so much in demand in Turkey for the drink and especially to make an ice cream called Dondurma as well as other desserts, its export is illegal. Anything called "salep" found outside Turkey is made artificially. The name is derived from Arabic for "fox testicles", descriptive of the tubers' appearance and tendency to come in pairs. The ancient Romans (and others) considered salep a powerful aphrodisiac through sympathetic magic. Illustration from Bilder ur Nordens Flora - public domain.

Vanilla Bean - [Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla pompona, Vanilla tahitiensis]
Vanilla beans

The dominant vanilla orchid (planifolia) is native to Mexico but has been planted in other tropical areas with Madagascar and Indonesia the largest producers. Another species (tahitiensis) is grown in French Polynesia, but in comparatively minute quantity.

Vanilla beans are long seed pods containing thousands of seeds, but the seeds are of no importance. The pods are picked green and then killed, usually by heat or sun drying. They are then fermented for 7 to 10 days at high temperature and humidity allowing enzymes to convert substances in the beans into vanillin and something like 200 other flavoring components. The beans are then dried and sorted by quality.   Photo © i0125.

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