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Edible Orchids

It has become a tradition in the western world to start an orchid book with the statement that while orchids are the largest plant family only couple of them (Vanilla and Orchis) are used as food.
I have seen people smile and nod when stating that something (or someone) is either beautiful or smart.

But, this statement could not be further from the truth. Not only orchids are used as food today, their use is increasing in Africa and scientists are trying to develop their use as agricultural crop.

After all vanilla has been grown as horticultural crop for only little over 150 years. Before that it has been collected from the wild in the same way as all other horticultural significant today plants have been in the past.

edible Dendrobium

Orchids are useful. They have been used in witchcraft, for their ornamental value, for their medicinal properties, for perfume preparation, as fodder and even as food for humans.
Some uses to which orchids are put command our interest because of their strangeness. Bowls for smoking pipes are carved by natives in the West Indies from the hollow pseudobulbs of Myrmecophila thompsoniana (known as Laelia thompsoniana), and in some parts of tropical Latin America trumpets to call children are fabricated from the bulbs of Myrmecophila tibicinis (known as Laelia tibicinis) -the specific epithet coming from the Latin word for "trumpeter."
In South America, glue for the cobbler's art is extracted from pseudobulbs of Cyrtopodium, whereas Middle American natives apply the dried gum from these pseudobulbs to violin strings.

It is pointless to repeat once again how orchids have been described 3000 years ago in China first as medicinal plants. The famous “lan” reference is only existent because medicine people take better notes than countryside folk who only pass their knowledge by word of mouth. Furthermore, effectiveness of their medicinal powers only relatively recently has been researched by the scientific method. In the past it was the experience  what proved a certain medicine to be effective or not. I personally believe that if a medicine was around for 3000 years it must have helped more than few people even if the science experiment doesnot confirm it. But that is a separate conversation.

The very name “orchid” comes from ancient Greek “orchis” meaning “testicle”and Theophrastos (c. 371 – c. 287 BC1) named the orchids from that word, as the underground tubers of Orchis mascula and many European terrestrial orchids resemble a pair of testicles.

Figure 1.
Theophrastos was not describing the orchid because of its beauty, but because of its medicinal properties: it was believed that plant parts that resemble human parts have corresponding effect – looking-like-testicles must increase fertility in man.

For medicinal purposes orchids are used even today in traditional Chinese medicine. According to a research, use of dried orchids ranges from cancer treatment to eye-sight improvement.* Yet again the flow of information on the topic of the orchid’s medicinal use and as food flows from West to East and not so much from East to West. There are many good discoveries in the East that are kept secret from the West even today with the advance of information technology. Furthermore cultures that use orchids as food do not document as much as we would like them to.

 The object of this article is only orchid's use as food for humans and below their herbal use will be mentioned only where food and medicine overlap.

Orchids are used to flavour food, as salads, main courses as deserts and to prepare teas.

vanillaVanilla is the most famous orchid for its flavor. It has been use to flavor food and tobacco (in Cuba). Not only was Vanilla considered a wonderful flavoring for foods and beverages, but from the 16th to 19th centuries it was considered to be an aphrodisiac and to have therapeutic values, from aiding digestion and preventing headaches to counteracting poisons and bites. The Aztecs called these brown beans "tlilxochitl"(tea-so-shill), the Aztec word for "Black Flower", and required the Totonac Indians who produced them to give some of the finest pods to the emperor Montezuma as a tax payment.

A study in 1992 discovered (Menashian at al.*) Vanilla improves food intake and reduces nausea and vomiting in patients given chemotherapy. In 2004 (Fladby et al and Fitzgerald et al.)  proved Vanilla as a tool for diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in that patients cannot smell vanilla. *

Vanilla is used as a fragrance to flavour the food. There are other orchids used to enhance other spices, like the buds of Cymbidium hookerianum and of the allied C. elegans , are used by the Bhutanese as an ingredient in curries, giving the food a slightly bitter flavour. The Brazilians employ the seed capsules of Leptotes bicolor to flavor ice cream, and other species of orchids are valued locally throughout the tropics as condiments. The fragrant leaves of Dendrobium salaccense are used as a condiment for rice in Malaya.

As true food many orchid blooms are used in salads. The blooms of all orchids are considered safe for consumption, but reports are that they are somewhat bitter and some species may irritate the stomach.


bigibbum flowerThe genus Dendrobium is famous in the US as food-orchid. Dendrobium hybrid (bigibbum type) flowers are sold in The US as edible decorations for food. Mature canes of many “soft-cane” dendrobiums are being stir fried in many Asian countries, also being used for making sauses in Japan and Singapore. In Thailand, Dendrobium flowers are dipped in batter and deep fried, while many European cooks garnish desserts and cakes with them. Dendrobium kingianum pseudobulbs have been used by the aborigines in Australia as food for no one knows how long. Besides Dendrobium kingianum many other orchid species were employed as emergency bush food and were used by the Australian aborigines and early settlers (Gastrodia sesamoides (roasted), Dendrobium speciosum and Caladenia species). Diuris maculata is said to have sweet-tasting tubers (at $30 a tuber in the US Diuris would be very expensive to try since its bulbs are the size of a pea).

In the tropics of Asia, roasted tubers of Gastrodia are eaten like potatoes.

Orchids are used as teas almost everywhere.

The fragrant Jumellea fragrans forms the basis of the "faham tea" from Mauritius and Isle de Reunion, off the coast of Africa. It was once rather well known in France, popular in the nineteenth century as "Bourbon tea".The tea is delicious, but it did not become very widely accepted and has, for practical purposes, been completely forgotten. The tea was thought to be a sedative. A tincture was also made to apply to the fingertips and improve the sense of touch.

In China many Dendrobium species are used to prepare healing teas.

Dendrobium cathenatum canes are boiled for tea to regain strength after sex or illness.






While  Dendrobium chrysotoxum flowers are being dried and consumed as tea for pleasure or good





Dendrobium longicornuIn Nepal, the botanist Bhakta B Raskoti reports that many species are used as food sources. Some Tamang communities use flowers of Dendrobium longicornu as pickle. Pseudobulb of Coelogyne ovalis and tuber of the Peristylus constridctus are eaten to reduce thirst by countryside people.

Many farmers cut Cymbidium leaves or Coelogyne tubers to feed their animals*

Raskoti reports in his book The Orchids of Nepal:

Tender leaves of Cypripedium cordigerum are cooked as vegetable, young leaves and shoots of Dactylorhiza hatagirea are eaten as a vegetable. Ethnic community of Chepangs eat boiled roots of Epipactis royleana or Habenaria intermedia, the leaves of the Habenaria are also cooked as vegetable.

Other communities boil the roots of Malaxis cylindrostachya and Platanthera calvigera (on the picture). Platanthera cordigera


Villagers in Jumla district boil the pseudobulbs of Satyrium nepalensis or eat the tender leaves as vegetable.




Dendrobium spp. may be second best known orchid for food, but as the collected number Sahlep probably surpasses it.

Sahlep” is the old Arabic name for the Orchis genus and the name of ice-cream made in the middle-East (Turkey) from different terrestrial orchids. Sahlep is mainly made from Anacamptis morio (or in the old texts “Orchis morio”), but it could be made from Orchis mascula, (the “early purple orchid”), or from Neotinea maculata (old Orchis maculata) or  (old Orchis latifolia). All these use to be known under the same genus – “orchis” and in the Middle East as “Sahlep”. They were first known in England for their medicinal properties. William Turner in the first English Herbal (1568) gave four main uses, including the treatment of alcoholic gastritis! Eleven years later, Williams Langham reported anti-pyretic, anti-consumption and anti-diarrhoeal effects. John Parkinson in 1640 still thought the tubers increased fertility in men. Before the introduction of the coffee and because of the British interest in the Middle East in Oliver Cromwell's time Salep were sold at stalls in the streets of London. Salep is a starchy, sweet substance that can be added to bread or make into a drink. It is historically known for its high nutrient content and was used by travelers as a meal replacement. Its composition runs about 48% mucilage, 3% starch, 5% nitrogenous material, 2% mineral ashes.

The tubers were mainly imported from the East but also came from Oxfordshire. Like with many others the Arabic word became corrupted in English to Salep. To produce the ice-cream huge amounts of tubers are needed, so from over-collection the orchids face extinction in Turkey. Because of that other orchids are tried as an alternative. Recently there are reports of using Humantoglossum caprinum as one. More on salep >>

In India, where the tubers of Eulophia, Orchis, and Satyrium may all be used as salep, it is used like sago and arrowroot and is prepared from a large variety of species.

In Mexico, candy images of animals are made to celebrate All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead, and among the plant materials employed are the pseudobulbs of Laelia speciosa and L. autumnalis.

In Malaya several species of Habenaria are eaten as greens.




Orchis mascula

Orchis mascula

From the same orchids perfume is made in Iran. Tender tuber and goat milk was used for aphrodisiac, while dry topical tuber as anti-aphrodisiac, antiseptic or gastro-intestinal problems associated with wine. Tubers were used for their anti-pyretic effect, anti-diarrheal or to increase fertility in men. (Langham W. 1579).

Only recently has been discovered by the Europeans that orchids have been used in Africa as food for hundreds of years. First to be “discovered” were the terrestrials Oeceoclades and Eulophia, but a recent expedition of botanists revealed that over 77 species of orchids are used as food in Africa. In Zambia, Davenport and Bytebier have described an ‘orchid rush’, whereby the boiled root tubers of terrestial orchids are used to make a food dish, Chikanda or Kinaka. The orchids involved are from three genera: Disa, Habenaria and Satyrium. The orchids have become scarce in Zambia, and are now illegally imported from Tanzania. The pressure on Tanzanian orchids has fortunately led the Government to designate 135 square kilometers of the Kitulo Plateau as a new National Park. Presumably this designation will protect some orchids. Four million Tanzanian orchids are currently sent from Tanzania to Zambia each year.

In the southern Africa region (Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi), the tubers of the orchids have for a long time been used as a source of food. The tubers are traded locally within the three countries, where they are used in the preparation of a meatless source. This business is being carried out in an unsustainable manner as a result threatening the future of the species and their associated biological diversity in the natural habitats. During in situ survey, in Makete, the orchids were observed to be at a very high threat of disappearance due to high rate of exploitation. Harvesting of the orchid in the area was associated with forest burning as a result threatening not only the orchids but also other living organisms found in the area. Lack of data on distribution, status and propagation methods has contributed to un availability of effective conservation measures for the orchids in the area. As a result, this project will generate necessary information to facilitate orchid conservation in Tanzania. The main objective of the project is to promote conservation of the edible orchid in Tanzania through integration of in situ, ex situ strategies and promote local communities participation in orchid conservation.

Not only are orchids edible, but also gardeners say that it is a source of fiber and vitamin C. So what does it taste like? Opinions vary; some say it is somewhat sweet, others say it tastes like tannin or raw chives. Some claim that most orchid plants and flowers are not poisonous, but they would make a poor meal. Recent studies for finding alcaloids with medicinal properties in orchids yielded very disappointing result.

Yet now and then facts about orchids being used as food show up.Like that people in Hawaii have been making salad dishes, cooking orchids and scallops together or have made sugar coated orchid candies since the 1960s. In reality, none of the orchids are poisonous, so all orchids are edible; but orchids grown as food is more desirable, and at least one month is necessary to completely wash off all the pesticides.

Cymbidium hookerianum is one of the large-flowered species that were used in the production of modern Cymbidium hybrids, which are such an important feature of the orchid nursery trade today. The buds of this species, and of the allied C. elegans , are used by the Bhutanese as an ingredient in curries, giving the food a slightly bitter flavour. In India, the seeds are applied to cuts and injuries as a haemostatic.

The claims that orchids are not being used for food come mainly becuase the areas that are most rich in orchids are also inhabited by primitive tribes. Such tribes do not distribute the information outside their own circle. Once in a while a curious facts tend to escape out, which are quickly dismissed as amusing curiousity. For example locals in South American use and orchid as a curdling agent to make cheese. What is it called? Why, the cheese orchid, of course.

Recent study was conducted in Africa to find how many and what species are used as food. The goal of the study was conservation. The wild edible orchid conservation team embarked on the ecogeographic survey of the wild edible orchid at the East African Herbarium in Nairobi, Kenya. The team reviewed the distribution of three genera (Disa, Habenaria and Satyrium) constituting the edible wild orchid in Tanzania, using Voucher specimens and available data base (Brahams).

The study recorded 21 species of the genus Disa, 77 Habenaria species, and 33 Satyrium species found in Tanzania. Disa species were mostly located in the mountains/ highland areas, mainly in the Southern highlands area (Iringa, Mbeya, Ruvuma and Rukwa), in the Eastern Mountain (Uruguru), and in the Northern volcanic mountain (Meru and Kilimanjaro). Also very few samples were collected in Kagera (Lake Victoria), Kigoma (Lake Tanganyika and in Bagamoyo (Coast area). Most of the species are widely distributed and few had a narrow distribution ranges such as (D. aequiloba, D. aperta, D. cryptantha, D. engleriana, D. equestris, D. longilabris, D. ornithantha, D. rungweensis, D. satyriopsis, D. saxicola, D. ukingensis and D. zombica).Habenaria is the widely distributed genus, with species found throughout the Tanzania mainland. The distribution ranged from the Southern Highlands where there is high diversity, Uluguru mountain area, Northern volcanic mountains (Meru and Kilimanjaro). Also some species were recorded in the Western Tanzania (Kigoma), in the lake Victoria zone (Kagera, Mwanza and Musoma), in the coast areas (Tanga, Dar es salaam, Coast, Lindi and Mtwara) as well as in the Central areas (Dodoma and Tabora).The genus comprises of a large number of the most common species and few rare species (Habenaria anaphysema, H. armatissima, H. burtii, H. helicoplectrum, H. holothrix, H. inaequiloba, H. insolita, H. leucotricha, H. lithophila, H. mirabilis, H. ndiana, H. odorata, H.Pauper, H. perpulchra, H. rauta, H. rhopalostigma, H. richarsiae, H. tetraceras and H. tweedieae).Most species of the genus Satyrium were found in the Southern highlands area (Iringa, and Mbeya), with few species recorded in Songea, Rukwa in the Southern Highlands, Dodoma in the central zone, Morogoro, Kagera, Kigoma, Moshi, Arusha and Tanga. Most of the species under this genus had a narrow range of distribution, except S. anthersteris, S. crassicaule, S.sacculatum and S. volkensii found in five locations.Most of the species were found on the Mountain grasslands some with sparsely distributed shrubs. Very few plants were reported to grow on depressions along the river in wet soils. Most of the plants produce flowers while others are sterile.Due to the fact that, orchid collection involves whole plant removal, and due to difficulty in seed setting for other orchids, tuber harvesting has result into disappearance of some species. The local communities were willing to grow the orchids on their farmlands as one of the conservation measures, however, the effort is affected by lack of seeds and the behaviour of the orchids to produce a single tuber per plant.


Tanzanian orchids with large tubers, like this one of the Eulophia species, have been dug and exported as food

Though rural Africans have consumed orchids for hundreds of years, the recent popularization of eating the plants in Zambia, especially in urban centers, has caused the recent boom in illegal trade, according to the WCS report.

All orchid species are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which requires certification of plants crossing international borders. But scant knowledge of the trade's existence, and a subsequent lack of enforcement of CITES rules, has led to truckloads of uncertified plants entering Zambia each day.

If same study is conducted in Amazon South America it is very probable that same large number of edible orchids will be discovered. Especially, having in mind that number of orchid species in Africa is five times smaller than in South America.

Unfortunately, studies like that are funded with conservation goals in mind and people eating orchids or feeding domesticated animals are considered to be "the enemy".

Anoectochilus formosanus (Pearl orchid) is a terrestrial orchid that grow in virgin forests at an altitude of 500-1,800 metres above sea level. Although this species was once commonly found throughout the mountainous areas of Taiwan, it has long been eagerly sought after because of its value in treating high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and disorders of the liver and gall bladder. Due to exploitation and the rampant development of the mountainous terrain where it is found this plant
has become very rare.



Tipularia discolor

In North America The species Tipularia discolor also known as "Crane-fly orchid" or "crippled cranefly" is reported to be edible with corms that are starchy and almost potato-like. Tipularia is a hardy orchid with a single leaf that is green during the winter months. It can grow outside in all Eastern states.

This plant in endangered or threatened in many states. You can help with donation or by purchasing plants raised in cultivation. You can start here- if this is a donation on the checkout special instructions write "donation" and I will plant the donated plants for you in the nature:


If not a donation I will ship them to you for a very low shiping rate and taxes are on me. Thank you in advance.

Bottom line is that many orchids have the potential to be crop for food, but they are yet to be “discovered” as such if only we stop stubbornly insist that they are not edible.

More will be added to this article as soon as new data of edible orchids are encountered.

Please e-mail to krum@ionopsis (dot) com any examples you know about other edible orchids not mentioned above (please replace (dot) with . manually)

Krum Sotirov


See also Herbal use of orchids

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