When I think of orchids I think mainly of the tropical beauty of orchids in Asia. On a recent trip to Thailand and Malaysia, I made a point of visiting one of the largest flower markets in the world which displayed some of the worlds most exotic blooms.

I have never considered Turkey to be an orchid hotspot, yet because of its temperate climate, it is home to more than 100 species of native orchids. Even in Istanbul orchids can still be seen growing wild.

Many native orchids in turkey are used as ingredients in widely consumed food products. This is also the case in other countries and regions that once formed the Ottoman Empire. Turkey is a country where European and Asian floras meet. Turkey is one of the 20 most populous countries in the world with an urban population of 74.7 million. It joins two countries. It not only bridges different cultures but also distinct regions of biological diversity. It has a coastline that runs along three seas and mountains that reach altitudes of over 5000 m. The Aegean coast is considered to be the richest area for orchid diversity in Turkey.

The number of species native to Turkey has been cited as 150 or more and the only threat they have in biodiversity is the collection of tubers for consumption. The orchid tuber collection takes place during the flowering season. Orchids are dug up and the young tuber is collected and the old tuber and top growth are discarded. The tubers are dried and ground into a powder which is called Salep. The word Salep comes from the Arabic name for an orchid called literally ‘fox’s testicles’ due to the tubers resembling testicles. Salep can be made from around 30-117 species of orchid from the genera Ophrys. Tuber collection for Salep has been cited as the cause of orchid population decline and consequently, cessation of consuming Salep has been recommended.

Salep is mainly used to make tough and stretchy ice-cream (dondurma), traditionally elasticised with an extract from the tubers, namely Salep.

There is a scarcity of data on the scale of the wild orchid harvest. More than 15 tonnes of Salep is believed to be produced annually using tubers from 30 to 120 million orchid plants. It takes from 1,000 to 4,000 tubers to make one kilo of flour. Salep in Turkey is not only food but also a medicinal product used for soothing coughs and ailments. It has been consumed in Turkey for hundreds of years. The beverage Sahlab is now often made with hot milk instead of water. Sahlab was also consumed in England and Germany before the rise of coffee and tea.

In terms of flora, Turkey has been considered its own continent. Altogether there are 12,000 known species of plants in Europe while Turkey alone has approximately 9,000 of these and out of these 3,000 are endemic. Orchids in Anatolia flower in spring. In the spring months, the hills and mountains are covered with orchids of all colours and sizes. They grow in such varied habitats it is possible to find orchids on the alpine meadows of the Kackar Mountains, in the Black Sea region, in the scrub of the Aegean and in the pine forests high in the Taurus Mountains along the Mediterranean coast. But, of all the places in Turkey where orchids can be found, it is the southwestern province of Mugla, which is home to nearly seventy species. In March and April, at least five or six orchid species bloom on the coastal meadowlands. If you return to the same meadows a couple of weeks later you will find their place taken by five or six different species.

Like the photographs of the Asian orchids of Thailand, the word orchid conjures up images of the exotic species. In Turkey, you may not immediately recognise orchids when you come across them whilst wandering in the countryside. These orchids are less flamboyant and extravagant in size than their tropical cousins, but they are equally exquisite when closely examined. As you walk along, keep an eye out for the spiralling flower spikes of ‘Ladies Tresses’ a frail plant seldom more than 10 cm tall with small flowers that look like dancing butterflies. These miniature flowering orchids open the door into the magical world of Turkish orchids.

Ladies Tresses  (Neotinea Tridentata)          Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes lucida)

At the other end of the spectrum are the large and striking species known as the giant orchids of the genus Himantoglossum, which grow to 50cm in height with over 30 flowers on each stem.

The Anatolian orchid, (Orchis anatolica) again has all the beauty of a butterfly in flight.

Out of all the Turkish orchids I have viewed whilst writing this article, I find the members of the bee orchid genus Ophrys the most intriguing. The bee orchid lives up to its name and is characterised by flowers with an uncanny resemblance to bees or other insects.

As you can see the orchids of Turkey are unique. Just my observations in bringing you this article has opened my eyes to so much delight. Let alone the pleasure they must bring to the digestive system with the Saleb flavoured ice cream. I doubt I will look at ice cream the same way again from now on.

Although It is not likely that I will ever see these orchids out in their natural habitat, maybe with a little education through articles like these we can pave the way for our new generations to conserve that which has been on the earth since creation. With a substitute flavour for Saleb we could save millions of orchid plants each year leaving something remarkable for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to see whilst they are walking on a trail through the countryside of this beautiful country, Turkey.

Written by: Sandra Giles




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