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Mother Nature Monday: The Rattlesnake Plantain

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain is one of the perennial herbs that can be discovered all along the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail in winter. You must look down, because their leafy rosette sits flat on the ground surrounded by the fallen leaves of the big trees. It is hard to miss because the leaf is so unusual. The leaf is a bluish green and has a network of white veins with a broad white stripe down the center.

In the spring the plant sends up a single flower stem high above the rosette and the flowers bloom on the upper quarter of that stem. You can look at the small white flowers with a hand lens. They are exquisite. Later on, each individual flower turns to a little brown capsule, and those capsules can be found throughout the summer and fall, at the top of the flower stalk.

The question is, why does The Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) have rattlesnake in its name? There are a number of theories. One explanation is that the venation on the leaves is supposed to resemble a rattlesnake skin. Hmmm. Herbal folklore reports that Native Americans used the root for treating snakebites and also rubbed the leaves of the plants on their bodies to make their husbands love them more. My theory is that the dry seed capsules of the plant sound like a rattlesnake’s rattle when you brush by the plant. The Rattlesnake Plantain is not even a Plantain, although the basal leaves resemble the way plantains’ leaves appear. It is in the orchid family! In short, the Rattlesnake plantain is neither a Rattlesnake or a Plantain.

Interestingly, Species of Goodyera can be found throughout much of the north temperate zone, as well as in Australia and on several oceanic islands. There are at least twenty-five species, globally, of this type of orchid. In addition to G. pubescens, Dwarf Rattlesnake Plantain, can be found as a rare plant in the mountains of Virginia.

Like many other orchids, the roots of Rattlesnake Plantain have a relationship with the fungi in the soil. The fungi help the plant absorb moisture and ­nutrients, while the plant provides products of its photosynthesis to feed the fungus. The tiny flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and other native bee species. Once again, fungi help nurture the tiny seedlings of this orchid. The fungi feed the babies until they can make their own food through their leaves.

Anecdotally, Native Americans used the leaves (with whiskey) to make a tea which was used to stimulate the appetite and to treat cold and kidney ailments. Historically, physicians used to use the leaves on patients with swollen lymph nodes who suffered from Tuberculosis. Fresh leaves were applied every 3 hours and the patient also drank a tea made with the leaves. So far, modern medicine has not verified that the plant has any medicinal value.

Now when you find a Rattlesnake Plantain in the forest, you will look at it with new eyes. Take a hike and appreciate these beautiful orchids.

Interested in supporting the stewards of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, learn more about the Partners of the Joyce Kilmer - Slickrock Wilderness here:

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