The article below was published in New Straits Times
newspaper on 25 September 2005.
SEX AND THE ORCHID
Yong Tiam Kui
It’s no mere flower, your exotic orchid. An orchid
scientist tells YONG TIAM KUI that the flower has
been used for many purposes, including that as a
WE think of orchids primarily as cut flowers or
ornamental house plants.
But, cultures throughout the world have employed
them for all kinds of purposes, including using them
as an aphrodisiac, medicinal herb, food item,
weaving material and flavouring agent.
For instance, the Europeans believed that orchids
have aphrodisiacal qualities because the roots of
some species bear a remarkable resemblance to
"Europeans believed that a plant looked like what it
was good for," says Professor Joseph Arditti, an
orchid scientist at University California, Irvine,
"So, they said it has to do with sex. They were
convinced that this and other orchids generated
In fact, he says, Theo-Phrastus (372-287 BC), pupil
of Aristotle and founder of botany, gave the orchid
its name because the roots of the species Orchis
maculata L reminded him of testicles or
orchis in Greek.
"When I am in the lift, I’m often asked ‘how are
your orchids?’ I tell them ‘you don’t really want to
know, do you?’" adds Arditti with a mischievous
Europeans also believed that the root could be used
to determine the sex of their unborn children. Men
who ate the larger root of the orchid would have
sons while women who ate the smaller root would have
The goatish smell of the species Himantoglossum
hircinum Sprengel, which is due to the presence
of caproic acid, led to the belief that it arose
from goat semen which fell on the ground during
copulation and fermented.
Arditti says this reminded people of the insatiable
satyrs of European mythology which were supposed to
be half goat and half man and naturally strengthened
the conviction that orchids can be used to increase
Ironically, Aborigines in Queensland, Australia, ate
the seeds of Cymbidium madidum for birth
In experiments with mice, Arditti says, seed
extracts of the orchid were found to reduce the
frequency and size of litters.
He says Zulu warriors also used the orchid as a
birth control measure. They would wave Ansellia
africana at a girl who had rejected them to make
For a while in Europe, says Arditti, it was
fashionable to drink tea made from Jumellea
fragrans, an orchid species from Madagascar.
There were tea rooms in Britain and France that only
served that tea.
Frederic Chopin’s (1810-1849) lover Aurora Baronne
Dudevant treated him with the tea in the hope of
curing his tuberculosis. It did not work.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the fruit of
the Vanilla orchid, was considered to be an
aphrodisiac and to have therapeutic values, ranging
from aiding digestion and preventing headaches to
counteracting poisons and bites.
Grown primarily in Madagascar, Reunion, Seychelles
and Tahiti, the ripened fruits are picked, processed
and sold as "vanilla beans" or used to make vanilla
Arditti says the orchid originated in Mexico. The
last Aztec emperor, Montezuma, was reputed to have
drunk as many as 30 cups of vanilla-flavoured
chocolate daily out of a skull cup. He claimed that
it made it possible for him to keep his 300 to 400
In what is now British Columbia, Canada, young
native Indian girls chewed bulbs of Calypso
bulbosa to enlarge their breasts.
In Panama, Selenipedium chica is used as a
substitute for vanilla. But, it’s rare, difficult to
grow and hasn’t really caught on. In Brazil, the
seed pods of Leptotes bicolor are used to
flavour ice-cream and sherbet.
In Turkey and the Middle East, says Arditti, the
tubers of some orchid species, such as the Salep
orchid, Orchis militaris and Ophrys
apifera, are collected, processed, dried and
powdered to produce salep or sahlab, a product which
is used to make a drink or turned into gooey and
sticky component of an ice-cream.
In Mexico, Laelia autumnalis is used to make
small candy images of cows, pigs and horses. These
are not eaten. Instead, says Arditti, they are
placed on graves on All Saints Day or Day of the
Because of that, this species is also known as Flor
de Todos Santos (Flower of All Saints) and Flor de
los Muertos (Flower of the Dead).
In the Solomon Islands, the juice of the Macodes
orchid is rubbed on the mouths of children who are
slow to learn to talk.
In Sri Lanka, Rhynchostylis retusa is used to
cast an evil spell that will ravage the unsuspecting
family on whose premises it is buried.
In South America, the whiter forms of Cattleya
percivalliana are used to cast a spell of
happiness for old women.
In his book Herbarium Amboinense (1650), Rumphius (Georg
Eberhard Rumpf) wrote that Renanthera moluccana
was pickled to make 'achar' in Ambon, Indonesia.
On a visit to Ambon, Arditti made some enquiries and
found to his disappointment that the orchid was no
longer used to make 'achar'.
"Nobody even knew that orchids had been used to make
pickles. Rumphius said it was gritty and sour but
tasted good," he adds.
Arditti says the Taiwanese use Cymbidium sinense
to make wine and added that a Doritaenopsis
jelly was served at the 2004 Asia Pacific Orchid
Conference in Tainan, Taiwan.
In Indonesia, he says, the leaves of Phalaenopsis
amabilis and Ceratostrylis latifolia are
He says the tubers of Gastrodia elata, which
has no chlorophyll and is parasitic on a very
destructive fungus, is roasted and eaten.
However, Arditti warns against eating commercially
cultivated orchids as they are constantly sprayed
with insecticides that are not approved for use on
In Honduras, children make flutes out of the
pseudobulbs of the Schomburgkia tibicinis.
Men use the pseudobulbs of Schomburgkia
thomsoniana to make pipes.
The fibres of Dendrobium lineale are used by
the natives of the Solomon Islands to weave.
In Papua New Guinea, Phaius tankervilliae and
Spathoglottis plicata leaves are used to line
In South America, a glutinous substance made from
the pseudobulbs of Cyrtopodium is used to
make shoe soles more durable.
Also known to the Chinese as Tianma, Gastrodia
elata is used to treat convulsive illnesses
(such as epilepsy), rheumatoid arthritis, head-
ache, vertigo, etc.
It is one of the ingredients of the popular Po Chai
Acriopsis javanica is used to treat earaches
in Java while Cypripedium calceolus is used
in some parts of North America as a sedative and to
treat neuralgia. Cypripedium pubescens is
used as a stimulant, anti-spasmodic and to calm
Goodyera pubescens is used to treat scrofula.
Preparations made from Bletilla striata are
used to treat tumours.
Grammatophyllum scriptum is used to expel
worms and treat dysentery and malignant tumours. A
paste made from it is also applied to sores.
Dendrobium nobile is used in both Ayurvedic
and Chinese medicine. It is said to strengthen the
weak, heal internal injuries, strengthen internal
organs, induce saliva production, reduce fever and
Arditti says a number of Cymbidium orchids
have been used for medicinal purposes and this
suggests that they do have pharmacological effects.
Cymbidium aloifolium, for example, has been
used as an emetic, purgative and aphrodisiac.
Cymbidium albuciflorum was used to treat
dysentery. Cymbidium canali-culatum was used
both as a food and a dysentery treatment while
Cymbidium finlaysonianum was used as an emetic.
Arditti was speaking at a talk entitled "Ethnobotany
of Orchids" at Prime College USJ, which was
sponsored by SEG International Bhd.
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