The Cultural and Ecological Implications of the Salep Orchid Trade

In Defense of Plants’ podcast explores the salep orchid trade. I’ve blogged before about salep, a traditional drink or dessert made with orchid tubers. It’s popular in Turkey, Greece, around the eastern Mediterranean, and other parts of the Middle East. Orchid tubers are made into flour, which is then turned into hot drinks, cold drinks, and even ice cream. Over 35 kinds of orchids are collected for the flour, including Orchis, Dactylorhiza, and Anacamptis species. Traditional harvesting practices have been sustainable for centuries, but increased commercial production has quickly become unsustainable. To get 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of flour, 2500 wild plants must be dug up. That’s about 13 plants in every cup of salep. As with all complicated problems, the solutions are complex, too. Scientists need to do studies of affected species, and educate the public about collecting wild plants. Existing conservation laws need better enforcement. Fortunately, there’s progress in the artificial cultivation of these orchids to start to take pressure off wild populations.

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