Orchids are like butterflies – delicate, colorful and beautiful. Whether they are blooming in the rain forest, strung on a lei, standing in an elegant pot, or used as garnish on a salad, they always seem surprising and magical.
An article in the May issue of Town & Country caught my eye for the way it links the physical and spiritual qualities of orchids. It traces author Lawrence Osborne’s visit with Minguo Li, environmentalist, botanist, farmer, and spiritualist, who cultivates orchids at two reserves in China.
According to the article, there are more than 28,000 species of orchids, which have been around for at least 15 million years and possibly as long as 80 million years! They are long-lived plants associated with qualities of “elegance, good taste, friendship, and fertility” and considered “pharmacologically miraculous.” They are used medicine, perfume, and in Guerlain’s Orchidée Impériale face cream.
Orchids (at least some of them) are also edible and their petals are used in China to make congee, a type of porridge or gruel, and to make tea. High in amino acids, they have a honey-like flavor.
China isn’t the only place where people eat orchids. A 2006 article by Aisling Irwin from Africa Geographic talks about the use of orchid tubers to create a dish called chikanda. Irwin calls the tubers “a national obsession” but laments that they are “being eaten into extinction.” Irwin confirms that this other part of the orchid is also nutritious, containing minerals, including calcium and iron, and micronutrients. Interestingly, powdered orchid tubers were used to make salep, a nutritious drink popular in 16th-century England.
Orchids, it seems, are more than just a pretty face!