In the middle of Athens, not far from the ancient Stoa of Attalos, possibly Europe’s oldest shopping mall, street traders wait patiently for customers. Their picturesque carts hold all of the paraphernalia that they require to make salepi – a hot, aromatic, sweet, thick drink traditionally made from sugar, milk, cinnamon, ground ginger and the powder of dried and pulverized orchid tubers (known as salep).
The first Viagra?
Orchids derive their name not from their impressive flowers but from the testicle-shaped underground tubers found in some terrestrial species. In Greek, the word orchis means ‘testicle’, while salep translates as ‘testicles of the fox’ in Arabic.
For centuries, plants were used for medicinal purposes according to the parts of the body they resembled. Orchid tubers were believed to determine the sex of offspring, heal diseases of the testicles and stimulate lust. It was said that if men ate whole fat new tubers, they would produce sons; if women ate shrivelled old tubers, they would give birth to daughters. The first-century Greek physician Dioscorides stated that orchid tubers were an aphrodisiac in his five-volume pharmacopoeia De materia medica. And during the 12th century, the philosopher and medic Maimonides claimed that orchid roots could ‘revive the spirits and arouse sexual desire’.
During medieval times, it was commonly believed that orchid plants arose where drops of semen fell from breeding animals. The 17th-century herbalist John Parkinson, apothecary to King James I and royal botanist to King Charles I, wrote in his Theatrum Botanicum that the firm roots of the orchid procured lust, while the withered tubers calmed it. Around the same time, another English herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, warned against over-indulgence, stating in his The English Physician of 1653 that orchid roots should be ‘used with discretion’ as ‘they are hot and moist in operation, under the dominance of Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly which the dried and withered roots do restrain’.
In some quarters, the belief that there’s a connection between orchids and lust is still alive today. One Athenian vendor plying his trade in the charming, lively Monastiraki Square informs me that it will do wonders for a flagging sex life, claiming that it’s a natural Viagra. Rather tellingly, as I watch the square’s salepi sellers ply their trade, I realise that the majority of the customers buying the drink are elderly and middle-aged men.
Could these interesting bits of sexual folklore past and present have some distant, convoluted basis in reality? One 2020 study by scientists at Kashan University of Medical Sciences and Health Services in Iran demonstrated that lab mice injected with salep extract showed an increase in serum testosterone levels and enhanced sperm production. It is, however, an enormous leap from laboratory rodents being injected with orchid-root extracts to humans downing a hot drink made from the powdered roots.
The ultimate panacea?
In addition to their purported sexual and reproductive influence, for centuries orchid tubers were also believed to be endowed with numerous therapeutic and restorative powers. They were thought to reduce fevers, swellings and sores, kill worms in children and cure tuberculosis, colds, coughs, diarrhoea and numerous other physical and mental ailments, as well as provide strength and nutrition. In the days of long sea voyages, ships were said to carry a large store of salep because it was believed that one ounce dissolved in two quarts of boiling water was sufficient sustenance for one man for one day if provisions ran short.
Walking the streets of Athens, these claims are still prominent. Next to the Byzantine church of Panagia Kapnikarea, one vendor explains that it ‘takes the shakes away and brings calm’. Another vendor along the fashionable, pedestrianised Ermou Street informs me that it’s an ancient remedy for any chest or throat complaints I might have. As another vendor pours some salepi out of his big brass pot into a Styrofoam cup and sprinkles some cinnamon and ginger on top, I ask a young Athenian customer what she thinks of it. ‘I like it,’ she says. ‘But, this is the first time I’ve ever tried it. My mother says it’s good to drink in the winter to keep colds and flu away and I’m feeling a bit under the weather right now.’ Two young men sipping their salepi tell me that it ‘wards off colds during the cold winter months’.
Salepi no more?
Once a common sight on the streets of Athens, frequented by both early-morning workers and night owls, salepi sellers and their carts are now disappearing. Wandering past boarded-up shops and thriving pawnshops, glorious ancient ruins and complex, colourful graffiti, I stop and ask some of the vendors about their business. Almost to a man (and one woman) – be they Greek, Turkish or Albanian – they tell me that business is bad. The old people who liked salepi are dying and the young people just want to sit in cafés and drink coffee. One elderly vendor tells me that when he dies, his business will die with him. Another, much younger vendor tells me that he would like to get a better job, something that will allow him to make a living wage. Yet another young vendor informs me that the cost of the orchid root is so high that soon there will be no more salepi on the streets of Athens.
Orchids no more?
Unfortunately, it isn’t just the drink and its vendors that may be disappearing. The unsustainable harvesting of tubers is threatening orchid populations in North Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East and beyond. It requires the collection of 1,000–4,000 orchids to obtain just one kilogram of dried tubers, so it’s hardly surprising that several wild orchid species now face extinction, especially since all of the salepi sellers to whom I spoke advertise their product as being made from genuine orchid root. With the Internet awash with companies selling salep powder, commercial collection expanding and the increasing international popularity of alternative, organic foodstuffs, the signs don’t bode well for the 35 or so species of orchid used to make salep – or, indeed for the rest of the Orchidaceae, the family to which orchids belong.
Containing more than 25,000 recognised species – some eight per cent of all flowering plants – in about 763 genera, the Orchidaceae isn’t just one of the largest plant families, it’s also one of the oldest. Studies suggest that the most recent common ancestor of contemporary orchids lived at least 76–84 million years ago (and possibly as much as 100 million years ago) during the late Cretaceous period, making it old enough to have co-existed with the dinosaurs.
Sadly, today, numerous orchid species are rapidly sliding towards extinction. Orchids are now a prominent focus of plant conservation, with all species listed on CITES Appendix I or II. Several different avenues have been suggested for the preservation of populations of the orchids used to make salep, including the establishment of specific conservation areas; the sustainable propagation of the species that yield the best salep; monitoring of the trade using DNA-barcoding-based identification systems; collection bans in excessively harvested areas; and the training of forest rangers and environmental guards.
Perhaps if these suggestions are implemented, not just the orchids but also the salepi sellers and the customers enjoying a warm, sweet drink will all benefit.
A previous version appeared in August 2012 Orchids - The Bulletin of the American Orchid Society