An Ancient Fantasy: Salep as Aphrodisiac

  • Eng Soon Teoh


The word ‘orchid’ is derived from Greek, orchis which translates as ‘testicle’. Mediterranean terrestrial orchids are called salab in Arabic, meaning ‘fox’s testicle’; ‘salep’ is derived from salab. Following the statement in the Herbal of Dioscorides that these orchids were potent aphrodisiacs, there was a chorus of support by Theophrastus, Pliny, Avicenna and Maimonides, echoed centuries later by Renaissance physicians and herbalists. The belief prevailed into the nineteenth century: salep drinking only stopped after it was overtaken by tea and coffee. Orchid tubers employed as salep belonging to the genera Anacamptis, Dactylorhiza, Himantoglossum, Ophrys, Orchis and Satyrion. Dactylorhiza are still promoted as aphrodisiacs in several Asian countries, principally in Himalayan region. This chapter recounts the story of salep and how Shakespeare and other writers played with the name. It also showcases the development of botanical illustration using orchids as examples.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Eng Soon Teoh
    • 1
  1. 1.SingaporeSingapore

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