It pays to leaf through old copies of the Australian natural history magazine, before depositing them in the recycle bin. Doing just this I found an article by Tim Low in vol 22, no 5, Winter 1987. He was conducting a long-term study of the traditional foods of Aborigines, and was alerted by a botanist, Beth Gott, to the food potential of orchid tubers. She wrote about finding a colony of Pterostylis nutans, at a density of 440 plants per square metre, yielding 800 tiny tubers weighing 126 grams. Of course I was fascinated, after my recent encounter with nodding greenhoods, and so was Tim Low.
He embarked upon a taste-testing tour. Here are his findings.
Glossodia major (common wax lip). It has a single egg-shaped tuber with a pointed tip and a watery slightly sweet flavour with a bitter after taste. In his words “not nice.”
Diuris maculata (leopard orchid). This one has two bullet shaped tubers, 3cm long and 6mm wide. It is glutinous, starchy, filling and “stuck cloyingly to my gums.”
The two pea-sized white tubers of Caladenia carnea (pink fingers) tasted “sweet and juicy”.
Dipodium punctatum (hyacinth orchid) has one of the largest tubers, six fibrous roots, 8 mm thick and longer than a finger, which need cooking to make them palatable. Their rival for size is Gastrodia sesamoides (potato orchid). He doesn't comment on its flavour.
His awards for “especially tasty” go to the walnut sized potatoes of Lyperanthus suaveolens (brown beaks) and the “fragrantly flavoured starch” of the horned orchid, Orthoceras strictum.
In The biggest estate on earth, a weighty account of how Aboriginal people shaped the Australian landscape, Bill Gammage quotes Sturt's 1849 journal as he explored in what is now western Victoria / South Australia.
On the other side of Mt Terrible the country is very scrubby for some miles, until, all at once, you burst upon the narrow but beautiful valley of Mypunga … covered with orchidaceous plants of every colour, amidst a profusion of the richest vegetation.
Gammage notes that many orchids bloom after fire, and this quotation is part of his extended argument about how Aborigines managed the land with fire. These orchids weren't there by accident, but as part of a regime of harnessing wild flowers and animals for food: a form of farming in fact.
In his article Low offers a couple of interesting sidelights on orchids as food, for people other than the traditional owners of this country.
He quotes the Australian botanist, Joseph Maiden, who wrote in 1898: There is hardly a country boy who has not eaten … the tubers of numerous kinds of terrestrial orchids.
He also records an extract from Anne Pratt's 1891 book, “Flowering plants, grasses, sedges and ferns of Great Britain”, which eulogises the properties of orchid starch or salep / saloop in a working man's diet.
Salep is little used now in this country; but less than a century since, the Saloop-house was much frequented, and the substance was a favourite repast of porters, coal-bearers, and other hard-working men. It is said to contain more nutritious matter in proportion to its bulk than any other known root, and an ounce of salep was considered to afford support to a man for a day; hence those who travel in uninhibited countries have greatly prized so portable a vegetable food.
Many of the orchids Low samples are familiar to me, but I'd never thought of them as a food source. I won't be decimating the ranks of any colonies I find by conducting my own taste testing. I'll take Tim Low's word for it and thank him for giving me another dimension to my understanding of orchids.