Medical Herbs Catalogue



Botanical Name: Orchis maculata, Orchis latifolia, Orchis mascula, Orchis Morio, Orchis militaris, Orchis saccifera, Orchis pyrimidalis, Orchis coriphora, Orchis conopea

Family: N.O. Orchidaceae
Synonyms: Salep. Saloop. Sahlep. Satyrion. Levant Salep.
Part Used: Root.

Most of the Orchids native to this country have tuberous roots full of a highly nutritious starch-like substance, called Bassorin, of a sweetish taste and with a faint, somewhat unpleasant smell, which replaces starch as a reserve material. In Turkey and Persia this has for many centuries been extracted from the tubers of various kinds of Orchis and exported under the name of Sahlep (an Arabian word, corrupted into English as Saloop or Salep), which has long been used, especially in the East, for making a wholesome and nutritious drink of the same name. Before coffee supplanted it, it used to be sold at stalls in the streets of London, and was held in great repute in herbal medicine, being largely employed as a strengthening and demulcent agent. The best English Salep came from Oxfordshire, but the tubers were chiefly imported from the East.

Charles Lamb refers to a 'Salopian shop' in Fleet Street, and says that to many tastes it has 'a delicacy beyond the China luxury,' and adds that a basin of it at three-halfpence, accompanied by a slice of bread-and-butter at a halfpenny, is an ideal breakfast for a chimney-sweep. Though Salep is no longer a popular London beverage, before the war it was regularly sold by street merchants in Constantinople as a hot drink during the winter.

Salep is collected in central and southern Europe and Asia. Most, if not all, of the species of Orchis and some allied plants found in Europe and Northern Asia, are provided with tubers which when duly prepared are capable of furnishing Salep. The varieties represent two forms, the one with branched, the other, and preferable one, with rounded and unbranched tubers. The tubers occur in pairs, one a little larger than the other.

(Orchis mascula )
Click on graphic for larger image Of those species actually used the following are the more important: Orchis mascula (Linn.), O. Morio (Linn.), O. militaris (Linn.), O. ustulata (Linn.), O. pyramidalis (Linn.), O. coriophora (Linn.) O. longieruris (Link.). These species, which have the tubers entire, are natives of the greater part of Central and Southern Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus and Asia Minor. The following species, with palmate or lobed tubers, are equally widely distributed: O. maculata (Linn.), O. saccifera (Brong.), O. conopea (Linn.), and O. latifolia (Linn.).

In the East, Salep is mostly obtained from O. morio, which is of frequent occurrence in this country in chalky soils, but it can be made here equally well from O. mascula, the Early Purple Orchis, O. maculata and O. latifolia, which are more common and very widely distributed throughout the country.

O. mascula (Linn.), the Early Purple Orchis, common in English woods, is in flower from mid-April to mid-June. A single flower-stem rises from the tuberous root, bearing flowers that as a rule are of a rich purple colour, mottled with lighter and darker shades, though often found of every tint from purple to pure white. Each flower has a long spur which turns upwards. The leaves are lance-shaped and do not rise far from the ground, giving a rosette-like effect, and are irregularly blotched with dark purple markings, which help to render the plant conspicuous. In woods and meadowland, the plant often attains a height of a foot or more, while on exposed and breezy downs it is seldom more than 6 inches high.

The blossoms are practically odourless in some specimens, whilst those of others are faintly fragrant, but in most cases the smell is not only strong, but offensive, especially in the evening. There is no honey in the flowers, but a sweet juice in the walls of the spur, which insects pierce with their probosces and suck out. The plant is provided with two fleshy, egg-shaped tubers, one serving to provide the necessities of the plant, shrinking as the plant reaches maturity, the other receiving the leaves' surplus supplies of foodstuffs to store for use in the following season.

Witches were supposed to use the tubers in their philtres, the fresh tuber being given to promote true love, and the withered one to check wrong passions. Culpepper speaks of them as 'under the dominion of Venus,' and tells us among other things, that 'being bruised and applied to the place' they heal the King's Evil.

This Early Purple Orchis in Northants is called 'Cuckoos,' because it comes into flower about the time when the cuckoo first calls. In Dorset it has the name of 'Granfer Griggles,' and the wild Hyacinth, which often flowers by its side, bears the name of 'Granny Griggles.'

O. Morio (Linn.), the Green-winged Meadow Orchis, is in flower about the same time as the Early Purple Orchis and resembles it in habit. It grows in meadows and is often very abundant. It is, however, a shorter plant, bearing fewer flowers in the spike, and is best distinguished by its two lateral sepals, which are bent upwards to form a kind of hood, being strongly marked with parallel green veins.

O. maculata (Linn.), the Spotted Orchis, receives its name from the blotches of reddish-brown, which mark the upper surfaces of the leaves similarly to those of O. mascula. The flowers, massed in spikes, about 3 inches long, on a stem about a foot high, with the leaves springing from it at distant intervals, vary in hue from pale lilac to rich purple, are curiously marked with dark lines and spots, and are very similar in structure to those of the Early Purple Orchis. It grows abundantly on heaths and commons, flowering inJune and July.

In this species, the tubers are divided into two or three finger-like lobes, hence the plant has been known as 'Dead Men's Fingers' (Hamlet, IV, vii), Hand Orchis, or Palma Christi. Gerard calls it the 'Female Satyrion,' orchids being known in his time as Satyrions, from a legend that they were specially connected with the Satyrs. The plants were believed to be the food of the Satyrs, and to have incited them to excesses. Orchis, in the old mythology, was the son of a Satyr and a nymph, who, when killed by the Bacchanalians for his insult to a priestess of Bacchus, was turned, on the prayer of his father, into the flower that bears his name.

O. latifolia (Linn.), the March Orchis, is a taller plant than the last, but has also palmate roots. The broad leaves are very erect, the flowers rose-coloured or purple, the finelytapering bracts being longer than the flowers. This species, in common with the three preceding ones, sometimes bears white flowers. It is very frequent in marshes and damp pastures, and will be found in bloom in June and July.

The Salep of commerce is prepared chiefly in the Levant, being largely collected in Asia Minor, but to some extent also in Germany and other parts of Europe. The European Salep is always smaller than the Oriental Salep. The drug found in English trade is mostly imported from Smyrna. That sold in Germany is partly obtained from plants growing wild in the Taunus Mountains, the Odenwald and other districts. Salep is also collected in Greece and used in that country and in Turkey in the form of a decoction, which is sweetened with honey and taken as an early morning drink. The Salep of India is mostly produced on the hills of Afghanistan, Beluchistan, Kabul and Bokhara, and also from the Nilgiri Hills and Ceylon.

The drug was known to Dioscorides and the Arabians, as well as to the herbalists and physicians of the Middle Ages, by whom it was mostly prescribed in the fresh state. Gerard (1636 edition) gives excellent figures of the various orchids, whose tubers, he says, 'our age useth.' Geoffrey (1740), having recognized the salep imported from the Levant to be the tubers of an Orchis, pointed out how it might be prepared from the species indigenous to France.

Levant Salep, as occurring in commerce, consists of tubers 1/2 inch to 1 inch in length, oblong in form, often pointed at the lower end and rounded at the upper, where is a depressed scar left by the stem; palmate tubers are infrequent. They are generally shrunken and contorted, covered with a roughly granular skin, pale brown, translucent, very hard and horny, practically inodorous and with an insipid, mucilaginous taste. After maceration in water for several hours the tubers regain their original form and size.

The branched or palmate Salep tubers (Radix palmae Christi) are somewhat flattened and palmately two to five branched. The elongated mucilage cells are not so large as in the other form.

German Salep is more translucent and gummy-looking than that of the Levant, and more carefully prepared.

The Oriental Royal Salep, said to be much used as a food in Afghanistan, has been identified as the product of a bulbous plant related to the onion, Allium Macleanii (Pharm. Journal, Sept., 1889).

The Salep of the Indian bazaars, known as Salib misri, for fine qualities of which great prices are paid, is derived from certain species of Eulophia.

Collection and Preparation: Tubers required for making Salep are taken up at the close of the summer, when the seed-vessels are fully formed, as the next year's tubers then contain the largest amount of starchy matter and are full and fleshy.

The shrivelled ones having been thrown aside, those which are plump are washed and then immersed for a short time in boiling water, this scalding process destroying their vitality and removing the bitterness of their fresh state and making them dry more readily. The outer skins are then rubbed off and the tubers are dried, either by exposure to the sun, or to a gentle artificial heat in an oven for ten minutes and heated to about bread-making temperature. On removing from the oven, their milky appearance will have changed to an almost transparent and horny state, though the bulk will not be reduced. They are then placed in the fresh air to dry and harden for a few days, when they are ready for use, or to be stored for as long as desired, as damp does not affect them. The dried tubers are generally ground to powder before using; it has a yellowish colour.

Constituents and Uses: The constituents of Salep are subject to great variation, according to the season of collection. Raspail found the old tuber, collected in autumn, to be free from starch, while the young one was richly supplied with it.

The most important constituent is mucilage, amounting to 48 per cent. It also contains sugar 1 per cent), starch (2.7 per cent), nitrogenous substance (5 per cent), and when fresh a trace of volatile oil. It yields 2 per cent of ash, consisting chiefly of phosphates and chlorides of potassium and calcium.

Salep is very nutritive and demulcent, for which properties it has been used from time immemorial. It forms a diet of especial value to convalescents and children, being boiled with milk or water, flavoured and prepared in the same way as arrowroot. A decoction flavoured with sugar and spice, or wine, is an agreeable drink for invalids. Sassafras chips were sometimes added, or cloves, cinnamon and ginger.

From the large quantity of farinaceous matter contained in a small bulk, it was considered so important an article of diet as to constitute a part of the stores of every ship's company in the days of sailing ships and long voyages, an ounce, dissolved in 2 quarts of boiling water, being considered sufficient subsistence for each man per day, should provisions run short. In this form it is employed in some parts of Europe and Asia as an article of diet. It is to the mucilage contained in the tuber that Salep owes its power of forming jelly, only 1 part of Salep to 50 parts of boiling water being needed for the purpose.

To allay irritation of the gastro-intestinal canal, it is used in mucilage made by shaking 1 part of powdered Salep with 10 parts of cold water, until it is uniformly diffused, when 90 parts of boiling water are added and the whole well agitated. It has thus been recommended as an article of diet for infants and invalids suffering from chronic diarrhoea and bilious fevers. In the German Pharmacopoeia, a mucilage of Salep appears as an official preparation.