Tricks of Wild Orchids

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The orchid family is one of the most diverse and beautiful families of plants. It includes over 730 genera and 30,000 species. It is considered one of the most complex families in the plant world, producing some of the most beautiful and expensive ornamental flowers.

Most orchids offer no reward to their pollinators. They rarely produce nectar to share with their humming, buzzing visitors and their pollen has no nutritional value. They attract pollinators by trickery and deceit; unwitting visitors pollinate them without any reward for their efforts. Orchids employ various means of trickery: some develop organs that look like food, others produce a smell that draws flies, and others look and smell like a female insect which the male insect tries to have intercourse with and, in his romping about, pollinates the flower. Perhaps the most sophisticated ploy in the orchid’s bag of tricks is resembling bugs that provoke the wrath of territorial insects. These insects attack certain competing bugs that enter their domain. Some orchids disguise themselves as one of these competing bugs, tricking the territorial insect to attack the fake bug in order to scare it away – and in attempting to do so – pollinate the orchid. Of the 28 species of orchids that grow in Israel, only five reward their pollinators with nectar – all the rest employ some kind of deception to attract insects.

Many, but not all, orchids are geophytes, meaning they have some kind of underground storage system such as a bulb or tuber. The bulbs, especially those of the species that grow in Europe and the Mediterranean, look like a testicle; the name of the family – Orchidaceae – is derived from the ancient Greek word for testicle, orchis.

The ancient Greeks also believed that this plant could influence human reproductive organs. One Greek historian reports that women in Thessaly used to soak the fruit of the orchid in goats’ milk and give it to their husbands to drink in order to improve their fertility and sexual prowess.

In Hebrew, as in Arabic, the orchid is called sakhlav. This name probably stems from the ancient Hebrew name that appears in the Talmud, halbetz, which incorporates the Hebrew words halav (milk), because milk was mixed with the essence produced from the flower, and bietza (egg), because of the shape of the bulb.

The bulbs of the orchis (a species of orchid) are used to produce a starchy extract which is mixed with milk or cornflower and other essences to create a beverage or food known as sahlev. This delicacy has been around since the days of ancient Greece. Over the years, all sorts of wonderful qualities have been attributed to it: sahlev has been lauded as a love potion, a medicine, a relaxant and anti-depressant, and a nourishing food. The essence from the bulbs is used today to produce both pharmaceuticals and candies.

Before rushing out to dig up the nearest bulbs to create a portion of this potion, remember that all the species of orchids in Israel are protected plants – picking them or digging up their bulbs is prohibited. Some stores, however, carry salep powder, which is made of ground orchid bulbs from Turkey. However, since winter in Israel is coming to an end, it is no longer the season to enjoy warming beverages like sahlev. Instead it is the time for hikes to enjoy the sunny weather and the orchid’s flowers. Orchids are in full bloom between February and April from the Dead Sea area to the heights of the Upper Galilee and Mount Hermon.

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