Did you know that the entire orchid family is included in CITES Appendix I and II to ensure that international trade is not unsustainable and does not harm their wild populations? The orchid family is the largest family listed, with around 30,000 species. While most of us are familiar with orchids being used for ornamental, medicinal, and cosmetic purposes, few of us are aware that there are also edible orchids used for a variety of culinary applications. Products with edible orchids are consumed nationally, regionally and internationally, and CITES is actively promoting the sustainable use of wild orchid resources.
Are edible orchids so rare that they don't deserve attention? Absolutely not. According to “A Review of Edible Orchid Trade,” commissioned by the CITES Secretariat to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (RBG Kew) in April 2022 with generous funding from the Swiss, 374 documented edible orchids have been identified. This number is likely an underestimate of edible orchid species because many of the edible orchids documented in the literature could not be identified to a species level.
Literature shows that the leaves and fruits of some orchids are used to add nutrients and flavor to a variety of foods. For instance, the leaves of Jumellea fragrans and J. rossii are used to flavor rum in Réunion. The fruits of species like Leptotes bicolor have been used to flavor ice cream. Orchids also contribute savory flavors to main dishes. The roots and rhizomes of Gastrodia cunninghamii are roasted or steamed in New Zealand and Australia. Some orchids are not cooked at all and are versatile enough to be eaten either raw or cooked. In Chile, the aerial parts of Myrosmodes nervosa are consumed as a salad. Orchids are also used to prepare a variety of beverages, including tea and herbal infusions.
More than half of the identified edible orchids are traded as Chikanda and Salep – which thus seem to be by far the most widely produced and consumed edible orchid products. Chikanda, a food “cake” made with ground terrestrial orchid tubers, is consumed across several African countries, primarily in Zambia, with significant supplies originating from the United Republic of Tanzania, Malawi, and neighboring countries. It provides nutrition and is closely tied to the livelihoods of local communities. Salep, a powder made from ground terrestrial orchid tubers, is commonly used to make a hot drink in Greece and Turkey. The Salep trade is primarily centered in the Near and Middle East, but it's also available globally and may be used in applications in contemporary medicine, such as dental care, and in industrial materials, such as colloid agents, explosives, gas lift systems related to drilling and fracking.
Hence, it’s clear that edible orchids hold commercial value and are traded on an international scale. Annual harvest volumes are estimated at 30-120 million tuberous orchids in Turkey. Circa 6 million specimens annually are reportedly harvested in Iran and exported to Turkey. Zambia reportedly sees an import of around 5 million tubers from surrounding countries, with 2.2 - 4.1 million tubers imported from the United Republic of Tanzania alone. In addition, the high average price of £450/kg for Salep’s pure powders and roots (equating to an estimated £0.43/tuber), may provide a strong economic incentive to promote them to an international consumer base.
Due to the market need, there are a variety of forms for consumers to shop on online marketplaces and online vendors often do not declare the source of the orchids on their product advertisements. Vendors and consumers seem either unaware of, or willing to circumvent, CITES controls. At the 25th Meeting of the Plants Committee, the CITES Secretariat noted that the trade of orchid tubers is a threat to wild populations and the trade seems to be unregulated. Without the use of CITES permits and authentication of product ingredients and vendor claims, the impact upon wild populations cannot accurately be assessed, although it seems significant.
Ensuring the sustainable harvesting of wild orchids presents challenges. Both Chikanda and Salep are made with terrestrial tubers which are exclusively taken from the wild. They are largely collected indiscriminately, with the destruction of the whole plant. The harvest seems to not take place in a controlled manner, or at a controlled time to allow for regeneration of species. Both Salep and Chikanda products have seen a rise in demand and collectors of both have reported seeing a decline in edible orchid populations.
In addition, the protection of areas such as national parks has not prevented the harvesting of Chikanda orchids in those areas. These areas where edible species had been harvested are often replaced with inedible species instead, a trend which could indicate local extinctions of certain species, affecting overall biodiversity.
CITES signatories have long been aware of implementation issues in enforcing legal orchid trade, with efforts to address these challenges starting at the 22nd Meeting of the Plants Committee in 2015. An intersessional working group was formed to assess potential risks and benefits of an exemption for orchid components particularly for orchid specimens used in cosmetics. The Plants Committee, at its 26th meeting, also formed an in-session working group to discuss the report elaborated by Royal Botanical Gardens Kew and formulated pertinent recommendations to the CITES Standing Committee.
Whilst the management of orchid harvesting needs to be investigated further, interventions must be sensitive, considering social, spiritual, and economic implications of regulation. At the current stage, more efforts are needed to ensure the sustainable use of wild edible orchids. This includes creating Non-detriment Findings (NDFs) to assess the conservation impact of trade in edible orchid products and conducting additional research to understand which species are being collected, harvesting patterns, and sustainable harvesting levels.
The Secretariat and its Parties will further discuss products containing specimens of Appendix II orchids at the 77th Standing Committee in November 2023. We hope to draw wider attention to the issue of international trade in edible orchids and look forward to collaborating with interested scientists, organizations, governments, Parties, and stakeholders to ensure that the international trade of edible orchids is sustainable.
- Harvested tubers, Zambia by Seoljong Kim