This week in one small area of Whitehill Wood, Early Purple Orchids can be seen in bloom. The Early Purple is the earliest of our Orchids to flower, beginning in April (often alongside the spring bluebells) and continuing until the end of June. Inhabiting non-acidic grassland and ancient woodland in many parts of Britain, it is the most common of our native Orchids, though not the ubiquitous sight it once was.
The plant stands as a single, flower-bearing stem, perhaps a foot high, rising above the anemones and bluebells on the woodland floor. This Orchid can be difficult to distinguish by flower colour alone, because it varies considerably in hue from purple through to pink and can even appear white. Identification is made easier by some particular features of its growth: the arrival of its flowers much earlier than any other Orchid; a rosette of dark spotted glossy leaves around its base; and sometimes a faint, somewhat unpleasant odour.
From time immemorial the tuberous root of the Early Purple Orchid (and related species) has been processed into ‘Salep’, a starchy flour used in preparations or medicinal drinks for soothing ailments and irritations of the intestines, particularly in children. Before the widespread use of coffee, Orchid root, often imported from the Middle East, was sold on the streets of London for preparing a very popular nutritious beverage called ‘Saloop’ made from this same Salep starch. ‘Salhab’ is a version of this drink which is still popular in Turkey and the Levant today.
We remind readers that today Orchids and other wild flowers are protected and it is an offence to pick them or dig up their roots.