The tradition of salep orchids' harvesting in NW Greece and its effects on orchid conservation
PhD candidate, Laboratory of Ecology, Department of Biological Applications & Technology, University of Ioannina, Greece
Orchids were always in the spotlight of plant scientists and enthusiasts, not only for their striking beauty, but also for their complexity of form. Back in 1862, when Charles Darwin mentioned in his book on the fertilization of orchids, that he was fascinated mostly by their “endless diversity of structure”, Orchidelirium was already spreading; orchid hunters were craving for the discovery of new, extraordinary, and unusual orchid species from all over the known world. At the same time, a popular hot beverage was being widely sold at stalls on the streets of London instead of the expensive coffee and tea. Salep or saloop – made from a flour derived from orchid tubers, and originating mostly in Anatolia, this drink was also known as a treatment for various maladies. However, the first mention of orchids’ medicinal use dates from long ago, around 2800 BC, in Chinese medical texts. In later antiquity, Theophrastus (ca. 300 B.C.) and Dioscorides (ca. 60 A.D.), reported that orchids were being harvested in the Eastern Mediterranean for their putative healing properties.
Although the origin of salep was widely known in the past, nowadays people in Greece are not familiar with the actual orchids that provide it. The majority are not even aware of the existence of the hundreds of different native orchid species, existing all over the country. Greece has a large orchid diversity, with areas like NW Greece being among the most species-rich, also hosting numerous endemic taxa. In this area, especially Epirus, and Macedonia, orchid harvesting increased during the Ottoman period (mid 15th to early 20th century), and continues today as a legacy of that period. Salep in Greece is widely used for the production of the homonymous beverage sold by street vendors on cold winter days, while it is also used as a thickening material, together with mastic powder, for the production of the Greek traditional ice cream “kaimaki” (an equivalent of the Turkish dondurma). Orchids that are collected for the production of salep are mainly those with ovoid bulbs or palmate tubers. At least 35 different species have been mentioned in literature as “salep”, with the genera Anacamptis, Orchis and Dactylorhiza being the most common.
Picture 2. (a) Old picture of a salep vendor in Athens center (early 20th century), (b) modern salep vendor in downtown Thessaloniki, (source: parallaximag.gr), and (c) a modern artwork showing a salep vendor, presented in the journal series “Greece is” by Kathimerini newspaper.
In recent times, orchid harvesting for salep became popular again. Excessive collecting in Turkey and other Anatolian countries has raised serious conservation issues for wild orchid populations, while in Greece the rising market demand for natural organic products has increased the demand for salep. It must be said that 1000-4000 tubers are needed for a kilo of salep flour, depending on the species. A single cup of salep needs about 13 orchid tubers. Yet, the process of orchid harvesting for salep and its trade hides an irony; all wild orchids are protected by international and national legislation (e.g. CITES Convention, European Directive 92/43/EC, etc.), that strictly prohibits orchid collection, translocation, cut and further process of the material.
Picture 3. (a) Salep flour sold in local market in Ioannina, and dried orchid tubers of Dactyloriza sambucina as shown by local vendor in October 2019, (b) Elder-flowered orchid in situ, Pindos Mountains, June 2018 (©Kalliopi Stara)
Starting with this paradox, our team from EcoLab BET (Laboratory of Ecology, Department of Biological Applications & Technology, University of Ioannina, Greece) decided to study the salep phenomenon in Epirus, NW Greece, where the use and trade are ongoing. The research has been co-financed by the Operational Program “Human Resources Development, Education and Lifelong Learning”, the European Union (European Social Fund), and Greek National Funds (Fund Code: MIS 5006128). Our team, under the supervision of Prof. John M. Halley, consisted of Dr. Kalliopi Stara, Dr. Konstantinos Kougioumoutzis, and Martha Charitonidou MSc. We investigated the impact of salep harvesting on the population demographic parameters and patterns of distribution, focused on the Elder-flowered orchid (Dactylorhiza sambucina). Our study combined fieldwork on wild populations with social data from interviews with local inhabitants in Pindos mountains and collectors, in order to trace the background orchid cultural history and harvesting practices in the area.
Our findings show that salep collection is still ongoing in Epirus. According to interviews, salep harvesting using traditional methods had a peak around 1950s and 1960s, when a few people from each community were the ones who actually had the know-how. Some of them only collected salep for personal use, while some used the practice as a supplementary income for their households. The interviewees that say they harvest salep, or used to in the past, said that the quantity they collected in total dry material varies between 10 and 100 kilos (note: dried tubers have ¼ of the original tuber weight). The prices of salep are high, modified by the yearly availability and the origin of the product. From what we have traced so far, prices in local markets most often range between 80-180€ per kilo of dry ground tubers, however, extreme values of 300-565€/ kilo have also been spotted, mainly on the online markets.
Picture 4. Salep meadow with Elder-flowered orchids, Dactylorhiza sambucina, in three colour variations. Photo from Pindos Mountains, June 2019 (©Kalliopi Stara).
Local salep harvesters, interestingly, reported that most of the time, they would mark the plants during the flowering season, using ribbons, or by digging around them, and they would collect the tubers long after the fruiting season, since they believed it is the season to get the best yield. Also, people who harvested during the fruiting season (mainly transhumant shepherds) mentioned that, although they dug up the plant and took the fresh new tuber, they placed the withered one with the stem back, compacting the soil around it, in order to leave it standing and able to disperse its seeds. As one of them said, “when we placed the plants back standing, they dispersed their seeds, and we were sure that we’ll find salep next year as well”. Moreover, something very interesting was that interviewees reported that orchid abundance is more or less the same as in the past, though most of them (especially the older ones) reported that the presence of salep is highly linked to weather conditions (rainfall in autumn and early spring, snow days and frost during winter), and can be very variable. However, the last few years, they say that orchid harvesting in those local communities has decreased in contrast to previous decades, since most of the people that had the traditional knowledge have died, leaving only very few younger people to continue the tradition. By contrast, harvesting by people outside the community has been rapidly increasing. However, none of the participants seemed aware of the legislation for the protection of orchids, and the prohibition of their harvesting, something that rang the alarm for the insufficient public awareness for issues of conservation.
Picture 5. (a) Retired forester in Eastern Zagori area, guiding us to salep orchid meadows in May 2018. (b) Salep meadow in Pindos Mountains, June 2019, (c) specific axe-like tool used in NW Greece by salep collectors for an easy tuber dig-out, (d) Salep dried tubers, mostly from Dactylorhiza sambucina and from other species (eg. Orchis mascula) (©Kalliopi Stara).
In our field studies, we found that most of the salep orchid meadows that our interviewees mentioned had quite an abundance of orchids, some with seemingly large populations. Regarding the demographic profile of the aforementioned populations, in all of them there was presence of both mature/flowering individuals, as well as one- or two-leaved juveniles. Demographic parameters did not seem to be strongly dependent on whether it was a harvested and non-harvested site; for example, the population density was greatest in the site of highest collection pressure. This counter-intuitive result shows us how much we have yet to learn about orchid populations.
Our interview results and our population study indicate that salep collection is still ongoing in Epirus. While our study did not find evidence that current levels of collection are significantly affecting the abundance of the Elder-flowered orchid in Epirus subalpine meadows, there is a serious concern that the expanding commercial collection could reach levels that threaten the species. More long-term monitoring of these orchid populations, and more effective modeling of the species’ response to different harvesting pressures will help us understand the species better and lay the ground for improved conservation approaches.
Our published research: Charitonidou, M., Stara, K., Kougioumoutzis, K., Halley, J.M. Implications of salep collection for the conservation of the Elder-flowered orchid (Dactylorhiza sambucina) in Epirus, Greece. J of Biol Res-Thessaloniki 26, 18 (2019) doi:10.1186/s40709-019-0110-1
Find more on our project and our team: https://saleporchidproject.gr/
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