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Orchids being eaten to the brink



July 3, 2017

Some of the world’s most endangered orchids are being eaten to extinction in Eastern Europe and Africa, thanks to the combination of a growing middle class and an unregulated market for traditional foods.

For centuries the Turks have enjoyed several foods made from salep, a powder used to impart a distinctive flavour and texture to hot drinks, ice cream and other sweets. Under the Ottoman Empire the drink salep was even fashionable on the streets of London, and you can still find it being served as a traditional winter warmer on the streets of Greece. The tradition is even practiced as far afield as Zambia in central Africa. But growing consumption in the previous decade has alarmed conservationists who have variously described the scale of harvesting wild orchids to make the powder as staggering, catastrophic, and reckless.

Salip is used to make drinks, ice cream and sweets in Turkey


For years conservationists thought that the growing middle class in both Turkey and Africa would see the consumption of salep and its African equivalent, chikanda, fall out of favour, as it was traditionally eaten as a local-harvested delicacy. What they didn’t count on was the rising fortunes of a swelling middle class being spent on preparing the delicacy as an expression of cultural tradition and identity.

To put the scale of the problem into perspective, it takes between 1000 and 4000 orchid tubers to make a kilo of salep, all of which are harvested from wild populations. In Turkey alone there are 30 tonnes of tubers harvested every year representing 38 different species of terrestrial orchid. The surge in demand in the previous decade has turned what was a local product into big business, with large sums of cash being paid in exchange for vast amounts of wild orchid tubers.

Early purple orchid, Orchis mascula, one of the many species used to make salep


In Turkey the orchids used to make salep have disappeared entirely, forcing suppliers to source tubers from neighbouring Iran, in which the same smash-and-grab harvesting practices are used to collect tubers. One estimate put a year’s worth of collecting in 2013 at up to 11 million orchids being exported from Iran to Turkey to feed their growing salep habit. And collection is increasing.

In Zambia the story is exactly similar, where orchid tubers are now harvested from outside the country, often from reserves set up to protect orchids specifically. Local landholders have described once orchid-rich grasslands as being stripped bare, as the ruthless practice grows with the Zambian middle classes becoming more affluent. It’s a bit of contradiction, as chikanda was used traditionally to make a meat-substitute when times on the land were lean.

The tradition meat-substitute in Zambia when times were lean, Chikanda is now enjoyed increasingly by a prospering middle class.


While there are laws against the shifting of endangered orchids across borders, a lack of enforcement as well as difficulty in identifying species sees the practice continue and expand apace. Orchid tubers can look almost identical between species, making it impossible to distinguish species as well as where they came from, making targeted campaigns in regions where they’re collected almost impossible.

Until now, that is. Researcher, Hugo de Boer, at Uppsala University is analysing salep and chikanda products using a DNA barcoding technique to identify species that make up the products. The practice involves sequencing the DNA in the products to identify fragments of species known to science, which can then be identified and pinpointed to incredibly accurate points of origin. He has said:


Barcoding can show which species are most commonly collected… [and] also makes it possible to pick up on small genetic differences that help identify the region they came from, which can help to identify the places where we need to focus our conservation efforts.


Conservation efforts are also being focused on reducing demand, as many of qualities that salep and chikanda impart on foods can be recreated using alternative ingredients. The complex sugars in salep that lend the traditional stretchy ice cream, dondurma, its elasticity can be replaced with synthetic sugars, eliminating the need to include salep entirely. While some vendors use it, others wont because the earthy flavour of the orchid powder is not as easy to substitute.

Dondurma ice cream, its stretchy qualities can be made without salep using synthetic sugars.


While some conservationists are also suggesting farming orchids might be a solution, the complexity of growing terrestrial orchids will see some time elapse before significant operations could be up and running. A Darwin Initiative research project was launched last year between several institutions and NGOs from Britain, Zambia, Sweden and South Africa which aims to crack the commercial growing of orchids to try and save wild populations.

To read more, check out New Scientist.


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