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Orchidaceae – From love charms to death charms & everything in between

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Just like human beings and animals, plants also belong to different families. In the plant kingdom, a family is a biological classification of plants into groups with related characteristics. The family is just one part of the classification, a complete classification of plants is known as a taxonomic rank, and it includes things like the domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Usually when I do these videos, I will give you a common vernacular name and a scientific name. And the scientific name usually includes the species and genus names. For today’s video, instead of looking at a single species, we are taking it up a notch and looking at an entire family. And the family we are examining is the Orchidaceae family – the orchid family. 

By all accounts, this is one of the most diverse families in the plant kingdom and the second largest family of flowering plants. The orchid family is second to the sunflower family. So, the family that sunflowers belong to, which is known as the Asteraceae, is the largest family in the plant kingdom.

Orchards are herbs with unusually shaped flowers – I have probably oversimplified this definition. But orchids are known for their unique flowers. People grow orchids mostly for ornamental reasons, but orchids also have other uses. This article explores the medicinal value of orchids, more particularly the value of orchids in traditional medicine.

As mentioned earlier, the orchid family is the second largest family. It has about 880 genera 26 000 species. Of this, only about 55 genera and about 490 species can be found in South Africa. And from this, only 20 genera and 49 species are traded and used in South African traditional medicine. As a country, South Africa has not fully investigated the benefits of orchids in traditional medicine.  

The orchid species that are used in traditional medicine, are used to treat a number of ailments including inflammation and a number of disorders such as intestinal, neurological, and reproductive disorders. Orchids also have a non-medicinal value, namely, the edible orchids are eaten as food, orchids are also used as love charms, for protection, fertility, and as death charms. Let’s have a look at how some orchids are used in South Africa and other parts of Africa. 

  • Inhluthi yotshani, scientifically known as Habenaria dives, is an orchid that’s used in different parts of Africa for different uses. For example, in Ethiopia the plant is used by men to overcome impotence. In South Africa, the plant is known as a death orchid, and it’s used as a death charm. The roots of this plant are dried and ground to powder and then mixed with other herbs and used as imithi to cause harm or bring evil in someone’s life.
  • Balobedu or Lobedu males chew the stem of a type of orchid belonging to the genus Eulophia, they chew this stem in order to achieve a strong erection.
  • Xhosa people use the roots of imfe yamasele yentaba (Brachycorythis ovata), a type of orchid, to treat insanity. Imfe yamasele yentaba is also used throughout Africa as umuthi wokuxosha imimoya emibi or umuthi to protect against evil.
  • Untongazibomvana (scientifically known as Eulophia tenella) is used in different parts of South Africa to treat infertility.
  • Amabelejongosi (scientifically known as Polystachya ottoniana) is used to treat teething babies. It is also used to treat diarrhoea and as a snuff. It is sniffed like snuff in order to produce a hallucinogenic effect. In other parts of South Africa and Africa, amabelejongosi is used to make a love potion or imithi for protection. 
  • Ubani lwenkangala (scientifically known as Satyrium bracteatum) is used to treat intestinal worms in South Africa.
  • Impimpi (scientifically known as Acrolophia cochlearis) is used in KZN as a love charm. 
  • Imfe nkawu (scientifically known as Ansellia africana) is used by men as a courting charm when they are courting. So umuntu makayo shela, they might wear a leaf underneath their bangle for luck. Imfe-nkawu is also used as a love potion and to protect against bad dreams. 
  • in South Africa & other parts of Africa – Ihlamvu, a type of orchid belonging to the genus Habenaria, is used as a good luck charm if you want to give birth to a son.
  • Ihlamvu elimpofu lasenkangala (scientifically known as Disa stachyoides) is used to protect against evil and to protect against lightning.
  • Intelezi yeZulu (scientifically known as Habenaria dregeana) and umabelebuca omkhulu (Habenaria epipactidea) are used in South Africa & other parts of Africa to protect from storms. For example: protect against tornadoes, lightning, floods, etc.
  • In South Africa, the edible orchid, Bulbophyllum scaberulum and Crytorchis arcuata are used to kill parasitic roundworms. And Isaka (scientifically known as Eulophia petersii) is used to treat heart congestive disorder. 
  • Iphamba (scientifically known as  Eulophia leontoglossa) is used in South Africa to protect from storms.
  • In Acornhoek South Africa, Ansellia gigantea is sold as an aphrodisiac.
  • In some parts of the rural areas, orchids are used, to prevent unmarried women from getting pregnant.
  • In South Africa & other parts of Africa, untonga zibomvana (Eulophia tenella) is used to get rid of bad dreams. The roots of imfe yamasele encani can be boiled and the water sprinkled to drive away evil. To get rid of a bad dream, you burn the root of ansellia and then you cover over with the smoke.
  • Chikanda is a popular cake eaten in Zambia, north Malawi, and Tanzania. And one of the ingredients used in making the Chikanda cake are the roots of an orchid. Malawian people believe that eating Chikanda protects you from illness. Malawi is rich in orchids, and they are used for different things. For example: orchids are used treating cough, abdominal and chest pain, headache, eye infection, urinary disorders, reproductive and digestion problems, and ringworms. In Malawi, amabelejongosi (scientifically known as Eulophia cucullata) is used to treat infertility, impotence, and is also used as mwayi – a type of love and friendship potion. 
  • Nyanja the people of Nyasalana use amabelejongosi as an ointment that relieves soreness and inflammation.   
  • In Mozambique, Ihlamvu elibomvu (Disa polygonoides) is used to restore a person’s voice, or lost speech, after an illness. People in Mozambique use iphamba yentaba (Eulophia ensata) to treat ailments in infants. Lastly, in Mozambique, Imfe-kawu (scientifically known as Ansellia africana) is used to treat respiratory illnesses such as asthma.  
  • In Senegal, the roots of imfe-nkawu are used to treat malaria. Pedi people use imfe-kawu to treat coughs in children. In east Africa, imfe-kawu is used to treat earache. 
  • In Zimbabwe, imfe yamasele encani (Eulophia clavicornis) is used as a fertility charm, a charm to ward off evil. Zimbabweans also use iphamba (Eulophia ovalis) to treat pain, sore limbs, and infertility.
  • In Madagascar, the roots of Eulophia reticulata are used as an aphrodisiac and Eulophia beravensis is used to treat nervous disorders. And the orchid Eulophia hians is used in Madagascar to treat boils. 
  • Countries like Congo, Gabon, and Zaire use amabelejongosi to treat skin disorders and scabies.
  • In Cameroon the roots of orchids such as Habenaria cirrhata are eaten as food. 
  • In West Africa, an orchid called Calyptochilum christyanum is used to treat faith & spiritual disease and snake bites.

You also have orchids such as Bulbophyllum sandersonii that is used to treat stomach ailments. Bulbophyllum fuscum is used to treat heart ailments. Bulbophyllum maximum is used to provide protection against witchcraft. The roots of Tridactyle tricuspis to treat insanity.

The same orchid species can have different uses in different countries. Orchids are very versatile: they can be used to treat cough in children, induce fertility in women, cure madness, and as love charms that are consumed by men and women. A good luck charm that helps a person to be liked by friends and employers, to get married, start a family, and to succeed in life. As protection against witchcraft and to promote health and wellness. 

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