Plant of the Week
Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia)
By Charmaine Delmatier (2018)
Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia) is a terrestrial perennial monocot in the orchid family, Orchidaceae, rising from a fibrous rhizome. The genus, Goodyera, occurs worldwide, but is primarily in Southeast Asia. In the western hemisphere, there are 16 species and in North America, it narrows to only four. Finding our less common rattlesnake plantain is a victory. Across North America, it can be found in both coniferous forests and mixed woodlands. According to Jacquelyn A. Kallunki in her treatment of Goodyera in the Flora of North America; in eastern North America, rattlesnake plantain is less common in low elevation cedar swamps but is more commonly spotted in formerly glaciated areas. Along the backbone of North America (the Rocky Mountains), it is often located in high-elevation spruce-fir forests. Look for it to bloom between mid-July and mid-September.
Even though it is not abundant, rattlesnake plantain is widespread throughout North America extending from Canada and Alaska in the north, to Mexico in the south. A smaller orchid, it stands erect and may reach up to 15 inches. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are 59,300 species of monocots worldwide and the largest family in this group are the orchids with more than 20,000 species. Several orchids act as medicinal and therapeutic treatments for tuberculosis, paralysis, stomach disorders, chest pain, arthritis, syphilis, jaundice, cholera, acidity, eczema, boils, and inflammations.
Of the four North American species of Goodyera, rattlesnake plantain can be separated apart with its white midrib distinctly prominent against the evergreen basal rosette of leaves.
The other three species have basal leaves that are usually either all green or reticulate with whitish veins, but all four can be difficult to distinguish. Small white flowers are somewhat resupinate (upside down), and terminally placed along a spiked peduncle.
For many orchid flowers, an advanced adaptation for visiting pollinators is a flap of tissue known as the rostellum. It extends down in front of the anther which separates the stigma (female) from the anther (male). The stigma is covered with a sticky liquid and as the insect retreats from each orchid, it brushes against the sticky rostellum. With the jostling movements of each insect, pollen grains also adhere to its body, and off it goes covered with both female and male gametophytes. The rarer of the four orchids (downy rattlesnake plantain, Goodyera pubescens) has a notched rostellum, whereas the other three have a distinct 2-pronged beak rostellum.
Also known as Western or Giant Rattlesnake Plantain, you might want to recover with a poultice of softened leaves for cuts and wounds or relax in a hot bath with an infusion of leaves to treat stiff muscles. As with all wild plants, discretion, respect, and proper harvesting protocols must be followed with each respective management agency.