Orchis mascula was collected for the Darwin Tree of Life project by Dr Markus Ruhsam on the 23rd May 2023, near Lochan na Lairige on Ben Lawers. One of the Scots names for this plant is Hen’s kames, recognising the superficial resemblance of its flowers to the birds’ combs.
Although this is one of the most common of our native orchids, populations have been declining. Open coppiced woodlands, one of its favoured habitats, are now uncommon, and the orchid doesn’t thrive on dark forest floors. That said, there are still some enchanting places where Orchis mascula can be found in swathes of thousands of plants. With this sometime abundance, alongside the folklore that surrounds orchids, there is a rich history of traditional uses for parts of the plant. The underground tubers, rich in starch and mucilage, can be milled into a flour known as salep. This is the basis of a hot water- or milk-based drink, still popular in parts of eastern Europe today, also known as salep (or saloop in England, where its popularity peaked in the days before tea and coffee became widely accessible). Unfortunately, unsustainable demand for salep is causing local extinctions of these orchids in areas around Turkey and Iran, where governments are struggling to reduce an annual harvest of millions of plants taken from the wild.