Friday, 11 November 2011

Aphrodisiacs & orchidology

Part two of a history of orchids from the year dot to the era

We left the history of orchids with Dioscorides, a Green herbalist in the first century AD.

He was a firm advocate of the so-called ‘doctrine of signatures’ philosophy, whereby practitioners (I hesitate to use the word doctors), took it upon themselves to use herbs that resembled various parts of the body to treat relevant ailments. For example, snakeroot was prescribed for snake venom, or wormwood to combat intestinal parasites. The justification? ‘It was reasoned that the Almighty must have set his sign upon the various means of curing disease which he provided.’

Such a view, some might argue superstition, lasted well into the 17th century. How did orchids fit in?

Rude tubers - again
The apt reader will recall how the ancient scholars noticed how orchid tubers resembled some critical male organs. The general view is that later European scholars became obsessed with the aphrodisiac qualities of orchids, overlooking other possible benefits.

Some believed that orchid plants rose up from the drops of semen which fell to earth in meadows where animals came together to breed. However, in a recent paper, M. M. Hossain of the University of Chittagong, has a less biased account of how several 16th- and 17th-century herbalists valued orchids for other properties. Turner, an early English herbalist described the uses of orchids for the treatment of alcoholic gastritis. Around a decade later, Langham in his ‘Garden of Health’ reported antipyretic, anti-consumption and anti-diarrhoeal effects of European terrestrial orchids.

The first Western volume dedicated to orchids was Georg Eberhard Rumphius’ (1628-1702) ‘Herbarium Amboinense’ which was eventually published in 1741-1755, two of 12 volumes being devoted to orchids. ‘Bastard Helleborine’, the common name of Epipactis helleborine, was valued as a remedy for gout in European folklore. The roots of E. latifolia were used in rheumatism. Several species of Spiranthes have also been used medicinally in various diseases. S. diuretica is efficacious as a diuretic in children. In Europe a preparation from the roots of Epipactis gigantea, commonly known as the ‘Giant Orchid’, have been used as a drink to combat mania and in severe cases of illness, especially when the patient is unable to walk or move about.

Given that the later 19th-century addiction to orchids themselves was called orchidomania, this is somewhat ironic.

Mind you, in John Gerard’s ‘Herbal’, published 1597, orchids were called ‘Satyrion feminina’ because they were considered as satyrs’ food and would provoke their excesses of behaviour, so there were still die-hard adherents to the aphrodisiac theory

This dubious reputation also spread to places far away from Europe. It is mentioned in several of the oldest Indian pharmacopoeias, and even though any scientific basis to this theory has long since been refuted, people still continue to use it for the purpose. 

Strange vines in the New World
But while Europeans were using orchids for medicine, and those in the east favoured the blooms for aesthetic qualities (see part one), across in the New World, inhabitants used orchids for culinary purposes. Twenty years after Columbus arrived in 1498, Hernando Cortes found time in between overthrowing the Aztec Empire and claiming Mexico for Spain to get acquainted with a species of vanilla being cultivated for is perfume and culinary use.

The Aztecs called this vine-like orchid Tlilxochitl. They ground the seed capsules and blended them with the brown seeds of the cacao plant to produce a bitter drink that is the basis of the chocolate we have today. Of course, vanilla is still a popular flavour, but while the pods are in steady demand, artificial vanilla essence has lessened the need to cultivate plants. Today, the main vanilla crops come from Madagascar, and were recently in jeopardy thanks to a nasty fungus known only by its local name, bekorontsana, which means ‘falls to the ground often’.

Back in Europe, botanists started to take an interest in orchids around the 16th century, when German botanists began to describe in great detail every plant they came across and even initiated early attempts to classify what turned out to be the largest family of flowering plants on the planet.

It wasn’t until the early 18th century that the first horticultural book solely to be written on orchids was edited in Japan by Joan Matsuoka on the orders of the ex-Emperor Hiyashi Yama. It was called Ran-Pin, meaning varieties of orchids and was published posthumously in 1772. In England, the first record of orchids in cultivation dates back to 1731. Philip Miller mentioned several orchids in his second edition of ‘Dictionary of Gardening’ (1768).

The era of descriptive botany was overtaken by Linnaeus (1707-1778) and his science of systematics (1707-1778). Things began to accelerate, and by the end of the 18th century Olof Swartz helped orchids to be recognised as a special group of plants.

Records of the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens show that Epidendrum cochleatum flowered for the first time in cultivation in 1787. Ten years later 15 orchid species were cultivated at Kew. Orchidology was on its way.

As European empires expanded, people’s interest in these exotic blooms increased exponentially. The variety and beauty of the exotic tropical epiphytic orchids, born home in triumph by Western tradesmen and missionaries from places such as India, Burma, Malaya and the Tropical Americas and Java and Borneo, instantly attracted the attention of the horticulturists of Europe.

However, the first attempts to grow there rare plants in hot houses were a dismal failure.

● Dioscorides
● Drawing of vanilla from the Florentine Codex (made in the 1580s), Wikipedia
● Epipactis gigantea
● Georg Eberhard Rumphius, portrait from Herbarium Amboinense, 18th century, Wikipedia
● Linnaeus, Wikipedia
● Epidendrum cochleatum

By Pamela Kelt