Spotlight on Orchis

Origins | Description | Qualities | History | Cultivation | Harvesting
Culinary Uses | Magical Uses | Other Uses | Quotes


A human being isn't an orchid, he must draw something from the soil he grows in.
Sara Jeannette Duncan



Latin name(s) - Orchis mascula, Orchis maculata, Orchis latifolia, , Orchis Morio, Orchis militaris, Orchis saccifera, Orchis pyrimidalis, Orchis coriphora, Orchis conopea 
aka - Salep. Saloop. Sahlep. Satyrion. Cuckoos,  Granfer Griggles,  Dog stones,  goat stones,  fool-stones  fox-stones  cullions
Family - N.O. Orchidaceae 
Parts used - Whole herb and seeds.
Purported actions - astringent, diuretic, tonic
Methods of use - Infusion, expressed juice, seeds dried

Origins - Orchis is a genus in the orchid family (Orchidaceae).

There are two varieities of Orchis - one has branched and the other unbranched tubers. Orchis mascula is the most common Orchid. They are native to Central and Southern Europe and Turkey.  Orchis mascula is also widespread in British woodlands.

Description - Most Orchids flower from April to August. The most common Orchid, O. mascula , the Early Purple Orchid, common in English woods, is in flower from mid-April to mid-June. A single flower-stem rises from the tuberous root, bearing flowers that as a rule are a rich purple colour, mottled with lighter and darker shades Though  every tint, from purple to pure white can be found. Each flower has a long spur which turns upwards. The leaves are lance-shaped and are close to the ground.  

In woods and meadowland, the plant often attains a height of a foot or more, while on exposed and breezy downs it is seldom more than 6 inches high. The blossoms are practically odourless in some specimens, whilst  others are faintly fragrant. In most cases the smell is not only strong, but offensive, especially in the evening. There is no honey in the flowers, but a sweet juice in the walls of the spur, which insects pierce with their probosces and suck out.

Attributed medicinal qualities - Astringent, Demulcent, Expectorant, Nutritive.

Salep is very nutritive, astringent, expectorant and demulcent. It has been used as a diet of special value for children and convalescents, being boiled with water, flavoured and prepared in the same way as arrowroot. Rich in mucilage, it forms a soothing and demulcent jelly that is used in the treatment of irritations of the gastro-intestinal canal. One part of salep to fifty parts of water is sufficient to make a jelly.

Orchis mascula is an aphrodisiac according to Culpepper “ … provoke lust exceedingly.” 

It cures worms in children. It heals the 'kings evil'  -   Scrofula (Scrophula or Struma) refers to a variety of skin diseases; in particular, a form of tuberculosis, affecting the lymph nodes of the neck.

It was held in great repute in herbal medicine, being largely employed as a strengthening and soothing properties   To allay irritation of the gastro-intestinal canal, it is used by shaking 1 part of powdered Salep with 10 parts of cold water, until it is uniformly diffused, when 90 parts of boiling water are added and the whole well agitated. It has thus been recommended as an article of diet for infants and invalids suffering from chronic diarrhoea and bilious fevers.

In the German Pharmacopoeia, a mucilage of Salep appears as an official preparation.

Salep is very nutritive and demulcent, for which properties it has been used from time immemorial.

It forms a diet of especial value to convalescents and children, being boiled with milk or water, flavoured and prepared in the same way as arrowroot.  A decoction flavoured with sugar and spice, or wine, is an agreeable drink for invalids. Sassafras chips were sometimes added, or cloves, cinnamon and ginger.

History -   This name orchis comes from the Greek όρχις orchis, meaning "testicle", due to the appearance of the paired subterranean tuberoids.

For many centuries starch has  been extracted from the tubers of various kinds of Orchis and exported under the name of Sahlep (an Arabian word, corrupted into English as Saloop or Salep),  -which was used, especially in the East, for making a wholesome and nutritious drink of the same name. * see recipe below

Before coffee supplanted it, it was sold at stalls in the streets of London.. The best English Salep came from Oxfordshire, but the tubers were chiefly imported from the East.

According to Dioscorides, an early Greek physician,  married couples used Orchis mascula to determine the sex of their unborn child.  When the man ate the larger tuber, they would have a boy; if the woman ate the smaller tuber, they would have a girl.

Charles Lamb refers to a 'Salopian shop' in Fleet Street, and says that to many tastes it has 'a delicacy beyond the China luxury,'  - ( tea ) and adds that ...'a basin of it at three-halfpence, accompanied by a slice of bread-and-butter at a halfpenny, is an ideal breakfast for a chimney-sweep. '

Cultivation - In general they are not difficult to grow, but there are a few points to note.  Orchis mascula likes a lime rich soil.

Seeds should be surface sown in a greenhouse, preferably as soon as they are ripe, do not allow the compost to dry out. The seed depends upon a symbiotic relationship with a species of soil-dwelling fungus, which acts as a food supply for the plant until it is able to obtain nutrients from decaying material in the soil.

It is best to use some of the soil that is growing around established plants in order to introduce the fungus, or to sow the seed around a plant of the same species and allow the seedlings to grow on until they are large enough to move.

Another way to grow this plant is by division of the tubers. As the flowers fade it produces a new tuber. If this is removed from the plant as its flowers are fading, the shock to the plant can stimulate new tubers to be formed. The tuber should be treated as being dormant, whilst the remaining plant should be encouraged to continue in growth in order to give it time to produce new tubers. The entire new growth is removed from the old tuber from which it has arisen and is potted up, the cut being made towards the bottom of the stem but leaving one or two roots still attached to the old tuber. This can often be done without digging up the plant. The old tuber should develop one or two new growths, whilst the new rosette should continue in growth and flower normally.

Harvesting, preparation and storage - Tubers required for making Salep are taken up at the close of the summer, when the seeds are fully formed  Next year's tubers  contain the largest amount of starchy matter and are full and fleshy.  You should not use any tubers that are shrivelled.

Wash them and then immerse  for a short time in boiling water. This scalding process removes the bitterness and makies drying  them more easy Rub off the outer skin and dry in the sun or a gentle low oven . Once dried, the milky appearance will have turned transparenty though the bulk will not be reduced. Place in the freah air to dry and harden for a few days. They are them ready to use, or store for as long as needed as damp doesn't affect them. The dried tubers are generally ground to a yellowish powder before using. 

Culinary Uses - None known

Magical Uses - Witches were supposed to use the tubers in their philtres, the fresh tuber being given to promote true love, and the withered one to check wrong passions. 

Other Uses - None known


Culpeper - “To describe all the several sorts of it were an endless piece of work:…” 

Culpeper - “It has almost as many several names attributed to the several sorts of it, as would almost fill a sheet of paper:… together with many others too tedious to rehearse.” 

Shakespeare - "But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them. " From Hamlet ( one of the flowers draped around the dead Ophelia)