Other than as beautiful horticultural plants, the economic importance
of orchids is rather minor. The only orchid grown as a crop is the South
American Vanilla planifolia, now cultivated in tropical countries
throughout the world. Vanilla from the vanilla beans/pods (fruits) of
this orchid is a traditional flavouring agent. However, even this orchid
has to a certain extent lost its importance as vanilla essence is now
frequently produced artificially.
There are occasional reports from central and eastern Africa that the
tubers of robust Disa and Satyrium species are used as food
sources by people in rural areas, although this occurs on a very small
scale. The same has also been reported of the South African Neobolusia
tysonii as well as in several Eulophia species. A sweet juice
has in the past sometimes been made from the tubers and roots of several
Disa and Satyrium species.
Some southern African orchids have also been reported to have medicinal
properties. In KwaZulu-Natal alone over 25 species are collected on a
large scale and used in traditional healing. This exploitation is a major
concern to conservationists.
There are many beliefs relating to power of orchids in rural areas in
South Africa. Orchids are used in love, death and fertility charms and
mixtures which are believed to repel evil or protect from lightning. Parts
of some species have also been used as aphrodisiacs (especially parts
of Eulophia species and of Ansellia africana).
Orchids have an enormous importance in horticulture. Orchids are used
as ornamental plants for almost every occasion, both as pot plants and
cut flowers. However, there are very few indigenous species which are
grown. Most species found in cultivation are originally from Asia or South
America. The indigenous species, with their small flowers often only appeal
to connoisseurs. A remarkable exception is Disa uniflora together
with its related species and their hybrids, which is often seen in collections
in South Africa and overseas.