Goodyera pubescens – Downy Rattlesnake-Plantain

Recently I had occasion to hike in Asheville and wrote a blog I called “A little hike in winter amid orchids” featuring three orchids which are evident in winter and grow in Nantahala as well.  Two of those orchids, Adam & Eve (Aplectrum hyemale) and Cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor )have the odd characteristic that their one and only basal leaf appears in late summer or early fall. The leaf over-winters, and then disappears by the time the inflorescence emerges.

But the third orchid, Downy Rattlesnake-Plantain (Goodyera pubescens), is also a little different compared to most flowering plants.  It is an evergreen – always there, to delight the eye winter, summer, spring, or fall. It flowers in mid summer, July in our area, and in the fall and winter it is not unusual at all to notice dried stalks of seed pods on many of the plants.   It is not unusual either to find a rather large patch of these plants growing, like a carpet, on the forest floor, and for a very valid reason.

The plant is produced by seeds, of course, but also by division as it sends runners on the ground  (stolons)which are  much like underground runners (rhizomes) which produce other plants,  as seen in the photograph below:

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In my hikes in and around the Nantahala area I have come across patches of these plants, but in researching information on Goodyera pubescens, I came across an entry in Henry David Thoreau’s Journal which made me a little envious because although we have small patches of Downy Rattlesnake-plantain, we certainly don’t have enormous ones covering hillsides like a rug .  I am very familiar with Concord, Massachusetts, as I have family living very near Walden Pond, and visit there often. I can well imagine that in Thoreau’s time vegetation was much more lush and wild.

This is what Thoreau said in his journal on  July 30th, 1853:  Goodyera pubescens on the hillside south of Ministerial Swamp.  Its veiny leaves, a hoary green, completely cover the ground on the damp and shady hillside, like a rug, sprinkled with dry oak leaves, which it has lifted as it grew.  It is just sending up its green scapes amid the sere ones of last year, and one has partly blossomed.  The hunter often sits on a shady ban and muses on this beautiful leaf, wondering what rare virtues it may possess. 

The following photograph, taken last week in Nantahala, shows how the plant does form a soft, velvety rug. But,  I am certain that in Thoreau’s time the “rugs” form by the plant were even more impressive.

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And, again, in August 27 of 1856 Thoreau writes: Goodyera pusbescens, rattlesnake-plantain, is apparently a little past its prime.  It is very abundant on Clintonia Swamp hillside, quite rect, with its white spike eight to ten inches high on the sloping hillside, the lower half or more turning brown, but the beautifully reticulated leaves which pave the moist shady hillside about its base are the chief attraction.  These oval leaves, perfectly smooth like velvet to the touch, about one inch long, have a broad white midrib and four to six longitudinal white veins, very prettily and thickly connected by other conspicuous white veins transversely and irregularly, all on a dark rich green ground.  Is it not the prettiest leaf that paves the forest floor. As a cultivated exotic it would attract great attention for its leaf.  Many of the leaves are eaten.  Is it by partridges?  It is a leaf of firm texture, not apt to be partially eaten by insects or decayed, and does not soon wilt.  So unsoiled and undecayed.  It might be imitated on carpets and rugs.  Some old withered stems of last year still stand.

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Thoreau says “Some old withered stems of last year still stand” which is very characteristic of the plant.  The inflorescence is really not quite as striking as the seed pod it produces and lingers on for months making a very interesting picture.

I can’t say that I am familiar with what a rattlesnake looks like, really.  However, when this plant was first noticed, America was still a vast wilderness with many snakes and with both Native Americans and Colonists following the Doctrine of Signatures the plant’s marking were associated with rattlesnakes.  Why was the plant  further described as “downy” and a “plantain”?  Thoreau says it is “like velvet to the touch” – which explains why the plant is described as downy. It resembles the plantain weed (click here for a link to Mrs. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal which describes plantain)

I have remarked in my earlier blogs about our Nantahala orchids that I had moved around our Adam & Eves found on our property to little groups to better show off the beautiful May flowers and added that, unfortunately, I had not been at all successful in transplanting cranefly orchids.  So, what about the lovely Downy Rattlesnake Plantain?  It definitely does not mind being transplanted.  I can’t say that I have rugs of the plant on the property, but we have moved singles which are doing well in their new location. We lack moist shady slopes on the property where they tend to form colonies, but so far we have not lost any of our transplants.

Photograph of a plant being moved from one area in which it was found on the property to one of the beds.

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Close-up of the plants roots

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As for the plant’s Latin, botanical name, the genus Goodyera, to which it belongs, was named after John Goodyer, a botanist and herbalist who lived in Hampshire, England, in the 17th century. I found this information in Timothy Coffey’s really good book about the history and folklore of North American wildflowers.  A wonderful reference book full of interesting information.  The Latin epithet pubescens comes for the word pubes or the downy body hair which is associated with puberty.

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Click here for a link to order this book which is still available on Amazon.com. Plenty of books still available in the “used” section.  I enjoy it so much that yesterday I ordered a second one to give to a friend. Only a dime plus postage!!! (I am thrifty to a fault – or am I just plain cheap?)

From this book as well as other sources, I learned a little more about the medicinal history of the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain.  Following the Doctrine of Signatures  teas  and  poultices were made for snake bites out of its roots .  But it didn’t stop there.  Apparently it was considered a plant good for what ails you.  Thoreau dreamily says “The hunter often sits on a shady ban and muses on this beautiful leaf, wondering what rare virtues it may possess” after musing about it Colonists and Native Americans alike came up with a variety of uses for the plant’s roots and leaves. Leaf tea was used to improve appetite, treat colds, kidney ailments, and toothaches.  (Foster & Duke)

The plant is known by a variety of common names and one of them is “Scrofula weed” which breaks my heart.  I asked my physician husband what scrofula is (click on the link if you would like more info), and I wished I hadn’t. Apparently, according to Foster & Dukes Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs (p.28) Physicians once used fresh leaves steeped in milk as a poultice for tuberculous swelling of lymph nodes (scrofula). Fresh leaves were applied every 3 hours, while the patient drank a tea of the leaves at the same time.  I envy Thoreau’s being able to see huge, rug-like expanses of Downy Rattlesnake-Plantain growing on the hills near Concord, but I certainly give thanks to live at a time of better medical practices.

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