Distribution and abundance of the edible orchids of the southern highlands of Tanzania
All orchids have showy flowers and many are therefore popular as exotic houseplants as well as contributing significantly to eco-tourism. A special attribute of some orchid genera is the production of edible tubers, an attribute that can contradict eco-tourism if harvesting is not done sustainably. Such is the case in the Southern Highlands where for example, Kitulo Plateau has been gazetted to be a National Park but where edible orchid harvesting is a serious conservation problem. Botanically, unsustainable harvesting can mean the loss of important germplasm even before some species are known to exist. A field survey was undertaken for three weeks in March 2002 in the Southern Regions of Tanzania (Iringa, Mbeya, Rukwa and Ruvuma) to study aspects of the extent of the distribution, diversity and density of edible orchids. Tools for identification included structured questionnaire, on-the-spot identification as well as using herbarium voucher samples and keys. Analytical tools included Shannons' diversity index and Canonical Community Ordination (CANOCO) and ANOVA in Microsoft Excel. A total of 13 edible species of orchids were documented during the survey all of them from the genera Habenaria, Disa and Satyrium. While Tandala and Molo hills had the highest species Diversity Index (over 1.2), Kitulo Plateau showed the greatest species density of over 200/30m2 quadrants. Local communities in Madaba in Ruvuma, Molo, and Mbisi in Rukwa regions used the orchids as vegetables and snacks in lieu of animal meat. The rest of the studied areas used orchids as a source of cash by selling to Zambian traders and or to their middlemen. More research is needed to monitor growth phases, reproductive/propagation studies as well as taxonomic and systematic studies preferably using molecular techniques to determine relationships amongst edible orchids and their non edible relatives.
Tanzania Journal of Science Vol. 31 (1) 2005: pp. 45-54