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U.S. Forest Service

Plant of the Week

Map of the United States showing states. States are colored green where the species may be found. Goodyera pubescens range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Goodyera pubescens Downy rattlesnake plantain basal rosette. Mid-spring on Allegheny National Forest. Photo by Collin Koers.

Goodyera pubescens Downy rattlesnake plantain inflorescence from previous growing season. Mid-spring on Allegheny National Forest. Photo by Collin Koers.

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens)

By Collin Koers

Downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is one of four species within the Goodyera genus. The rattlesnake plantains get their name from their broad, rounded leaves similar in shape to those of plantain, a common lawn weed. Yet, they are neither plantains nor weeds, but orchids (family Orchidaceae).

With pubescens meaning “downy” or “hairy” in Latin, it is not surprising that very fine downy hairs cover all parts of the plant, especially on the bloom spike; however, this characteristic is not distinctive as all rattlesnake plantains have downy inflorescence. Also like the other rattlesnake plantains, downy rattlesnake plantain is evergreen. Its dark-green, oval leaves (4 to 8 in number and 1½ to 2½ inches long) lay low to the ground in a circular arrangement around a central growing point (basal rosette) and may persist for three to four years. In contrast to the green background, striking silver veins and a thick, white central vein mark the leaves and distinguish it from the similar-looking checkered rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera tesselata). Downy rattlesnake plantain flowers in late summer (July to August) and produces small, white inflorescence densely packed along the top portion of the bloom spike (terminal raceme).

Despite being listed as endangered in Florida and exploitably vulnerable in New York, downy rattlesnake plantain is one of the most common orchid species native to the eastern United States. It can be found on dry to moist upland sites in deciduous and coniferous forests, usually in sandy, acidic soils, and sometimes growing on moss. Light conditions may range from partial shade to sun.

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