SA Orchids:Economic and cultural aspects

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.

Food sources
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.

Medicinal uses
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.

Description : Hubert Kurzweil
October 2000

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