Overharvesting, in response to skyrocketing demand in Turkey and elsewhere, is placing the endemic wild orchid population in Pindos mountains of northwestern Greece at risk. This conclusion was reached by a team of University of Ioannina scientists studying the flowers.
The wild orchid is a key ingredient for the production of salep, a popular sweet drink, and for the production Turkey’s mastic ice cream dondurma. This has resulted in the dried orchid fetching prices as high as €90-120 per kilogram on the black market.
“The wild orchids are strictly protected under Greek laws but most people don’t know this,” stated Kalliopi Stara, the head of the University of Ioannina scientific team studying the flower, in an interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (AMNA). “Even though our results show that local traditional collection is of a relatively limited extent and scale, in recent years the phenomenon of ‘looting’ harvesting is increasing. In addition to orchids, it also applies to other medicinal plants, herbs, edible mushrooms and truffles as a result of global pressure for ‘wild’ and ‘traditional’ products, transforming the former foods of the poor into foods for the rich,” she added.
Stara, who is a researcher at the University of Ioannina’s Biological Applications and Technologies Ecology Laboratory, is working with a team consisting of Martha Charitonidou, Anastasia Tzortzaki, and John M. Halley to study the impact of harvesting on the orchid population.
The team is focusing on the orchids Dactylorhiza sambucina and Orchis mascula, which are the two types most commonly collected for salep production in Greece. As stated by Stara, the first variety is relatively common in Greece and its population is mainly affected by overharvesting, grazing, nearby species, the availability of open spaces, and by proximity to roads.
According to Stara, traditional orchid collection in the 1960s was performed by hand with the use of a specially made small adze, and was a tiresome job that few chose to do. Harvesting would begin in June, when the flowering season was over, and harvesters would replace the old bulbs in the soil so they would find more the following year.
While ornamental orchids can be cultivated, the same is not true of wild orchids, as their reproductive biology is more unusual, according to Stara.
“Orchids are directly dependent on their symbiosis with fungi that live in the soil and support their growth in the first stages of life, something that makes their cultivation difficult,” said Stara. “In spite of this, many research efforts are underway in Turkey, Greece and elsewhere in Europe,” she added.
According to Stara, discovering ways to cultivate the plants is the sole solution for their protection, while she highlighted the urgent need to find ways to sustainably manage wild plants in Greece that are the focus of great commercial interest.