Early Purple Orchid

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(Orchis mascula) The commonest of the British native orchids. The tubers (and those of most of the Orchis species of Europe and Northern Asia), when prepared, yield salep, which had, at least according to the doctrine of signatures (the word orchid means testicle) a reputation for curing impotence (Pliny: gemina radice, testiculus simili), a reputation flourishing in eastern countries particularly, though it is represented too in north-east Scotland, where the root was used as an aphrodisiac, the old tuber being discarded, and the new one used. It would be dried, ground, and secretly administered as a potion (Anson). John Moncrieff of Tippermalloch (in the 18th century) went further:

"Satyrion root holden in the hand", he said, during coitus, would ensure success (Rorie. 1994). There was an old belief, which Gerard ascribed to Dioscorides, that "if men do eat of the great full or fat roots ... they cause them to beget male children; and if women eat of the lesser dry or barren root, which is withered or shrivelled, they shall bring forth females". He disclaimed the belief, though - "these are some Doctours opinions only".

The word 'salep', sometimes spelt salop, is Turkish (most of the tubers for its manufacture were imported from Turkey (Coats. 1975)), from an Arabic original, sahlab (Emboden. 1974), apparently meaning fox orchid. The substance was imported at one time from the East. It was used as an article of diet, reportedly very nutritious (Fluckiger & Hanbury), and part of every ship's provisions to prevent famine at sea (Thornton), for the dried material swells to several times its size when water is added, so it was standard starchy food in the days of sailing ships. It forms a jelly with a large proportion of water. A decoction flavoured with sugar and spice, or wine, was reckoned an agreeable drink for invalids though it was acknowledged that it has no medicinal value. Nevertheless, it was used for the treatment for colitis and diarrhoea (Emboden. 1974). It makes a common soft drink, very popular long before the introduction of coffee houses, and mentioned in Victorian books as a common beverage for manual workers (Mabey. 1972).

Hebridean children used to call the plants "dappled cows". When found before the flower head had formed, the children would dig round the plant until the tuber was exposed. Then they would "milk" the dappled cow by compressing the tuber, squeezing the juice out. Apparently they had no use for the juice, and did not taste it. Anyway, no harm would be done to the plant.

Ulster fishermen used to put bunches of purple orchis in their windows, on St John's Day, to keep away evil. It is recorded that the plant bloomed in great profusion on some of the bomb sites of Belfast in 1941 (Foster); this habit may be the origin of the belief that it keeps away evil.

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