Distinctive, Native Orchid

Goodyera pubescens, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain

Goodyera pubescent grows in my yard. But that's not why I like it. I like it, I confess, primarily because it is so easy to identify that I can always get it right. Human frailties rear their ugly head again! I don't know how it got in my yard, I might add...but I'm perfectly happy to have it. 

More commonly referred to as Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, Goodyera pubescent is ... not a plantain. It is an orchid. It is a native orchid, and it is the most common native orchid species in New England, according to the Connecticut Botanical Society. You will find it most commonly in coniferous woods and, frequently, growing in moss, as you see here. In my yard, it grows under a mature white pine. I'm not sure that qualifies as "coniferous woods," but far be it for me to complain about a native plant in my yard! This first image was not taken in my yard--those baby plants have just shown their heads and are not yet ready for the spotlight. This image was taken at the Southern Highlands Reserve, where I had the privilege of speaking last weekend. (Link may be slow to open...please be patient!)

In Pisgah National Forest

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain blooms in June, July and August in North Carolina, depending on elevation. It sends up spikes on which the white blooms form that can reach 18 inches in height. The fuzzy leaves themselves always hug the ground--each leaf lasts about 4 years before giving up the ghost--and the distinctive stripe down the center makes them, as plant nuts everywhere will tell you, easy to identify. It prefers a light shade and grows from zones 4a to 10b, but does prefer moist soils. If you've got these conditions, you can grow orchids!

Above, you can see the relationship of the inflorescence to the base of the plant. Otherwise, not a great picture. Shot this one when walking at the Cradle of Forestry in Transylvania County, NC. The Cradle has a couple of easy loop trails, and the one on which this photo was taken is especially great for older individuals and kids--a paved surface and lots of interesting features related to the history of the area, including an old logging engine--complete with a bell that simply must be rung, if you are young or young at heart. If you find yourself up this way, you will enjoy this trail. Lots of great plant specimens... not just Downy Rattlesnake Plantain!

Blooms of Goodyera pubescent are found sitting on top of the woolly stalk that rises from the center of the rosette of leaves. They form a cylindrical cluster of spherical flowers--tiny ones--that are less than a quarter of an inch in length. According to the Orchids of Wisconsin site, a small bee has been observed visiting this flower--Augochlorella striata--but it is not known for certain if that is its primary pollinator. Another instance where we just don't know enough, yet.

Here is the only image I've been able to locate of the bee in question--admittedly not a "live" image.

Apparently, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain is a common addition to terrariums, partly due to the striking foliage. Ease of transplant and success in moist environments are probably factors in its use in these small habitats, as well. It should be noted that Goodyera pubescent can make itself happy in clay, sand or loamy conditions, as long as it gets a little light and some acidity to the soil. While the coniferous forests around here are certainly moist, the Wisconsin site notes that the orchid can also be found in drier, sandier sites--so evidently, this is a true "survivor" species and can be counted on to succeed in most any shady spot. It naturally occurs from Maine to Florida and west to Missouri and Minnesota.

Roots of this plant are characterized as fleshy and fibrous. The dense rosette, not the bloom, is what usually causes plant lovers to acquire this orchid, if it isn't already taking up residence on their property. The rich gray/blue-green, the vivid stripe of white--both of which can be seen anytime there isn't snow on the ground (since the plant is evergreen)-- these are why a gardener would find this plant a delicious addition to their home habitat. It is not a big, showy thing. It's one of those small delights that sneaks up on you in the darker, moister parts of your landscape and encourages you to sit down and stay awhile.


North Carolina Native Plant SocietyConnecticut Botanical SocietyOrchids of WisconsinLadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center

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