Among botanists, Lesvos is famous for its wild orchids, which flower between March and end-June, offering the keen observer the opportunity to catalogue a total of 106 different species. A string of Latin-named pearls corresponding to a series of genus these beautiful, but delicate flowers belong to, including the endemic Ophrys lesbis (meaning it can be found nowhere else on the planet!).
Indeed, the name ‘orchid’ was coined by the ancient philosopher, Theóphrastos from Eressós, Lesvos (c.371-c.287 BC), considered the father of botany because of his ten-volume treatise Περὶ φυτῶν ἱστορία (Perí phytón historía, better known under its Latin translation of Historia plantarum, first published in 1483), where he described plants by their uses and attempted a biological classification based on how they reproduced. The underground twin tubers of the species he studied, led him to give them the generic name of ὄρχις (órchis), the Ancient Greek name for testicle, as the tubers’ shape is reminiscent of the male testes. In naming the species so, Theophrastus was also possibly influenced by the myth of Orchis.
According to mythology, the Orchis was the son of a nymph and a satyr, a very handsome youth used to getting his way. When attending a feast in honour of Dionysus (god of the vine and wine-making), he overindulged and, in a state of alcoholic euphoria, tried to rape one of the priestesses, thus committing sacrilege. He was punished by being torn to pieces by wild beasts but, moved by his father’s anguish, the gods created an extraordinarily carnal plant to grow from his remains, with the flower in remembrance of his beauty and licentiousness and, below the surface, the two bulbs symbolising the sin that brought about his misfortune by ruling his actions.
The myth linked to wild orchids almost certainly led to the misconception of their aphrodisiac properties, especially as Dioscorides (c.40-c.90 AD), a Greek physician and pharmacologist working in Emperor Nero’s army and author of De Materia Medica, promoted the “doctrine of signatures” whereby plants were used for medicinal purposes according to their resemblance to human anatomy. This led to orchid tubers being used to heal diseases of the testicles, as aphrodisiacs or as remedies for female infertility. It also founded the belief that, if a man ate the larger of the two tubers, he would produce sons, whereas if a woman ate the smaller of the two, she would have daughters!
A drink was also made in Roman times of dried orchid tubers, called satyrion, while in more recent times the flour of dried orchid tubers is used to make salep, a warming winter beverage supposed to boost the immune system, ward off colds and sooth coughs. But think twice before drinking it: between a thousand and 4,000 wild orchids need to be uprooted to make just one kilo of salep powder... Admire them instead in the wild - and see how many different species you are able to observe during your stay on Lesvos!