Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is a perennial evergreen orchid found growing in deciduous and coniferous forests, often in dry, sandy soil. While its hairy (downy) stalk of delicate, white, late-summer flowers is eye-catching (see 8/20/13 NC post), the leaves of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain are also works of art. Rosettes of bluish-green leaves emerge at the end of horizonal rhizomes, or stems, that are usually covered lightly by leaf litter.
The common name “plantain” has been applied to diverse, unrelated plants that have broad, flat leaves, the word being derived from the Latin word planta, referring to the sole of the foot. “Rattlesnake” alludes to the resemblance of this plant’s prominent reticulated veins to the scaly skin of snakes.
As is typical of orchids, the roots of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain have a mycorrhizal relationship with fungi that assists the plant in the acquisition of moisture and nutrients, while the plant provides products of its photosynthesis to feed the fungus. Also typical of orchids, the seeds of this species are minute and dust-like, bearing few nutrients to assist in the establishment of new seedlings. Seedling establishment requires assistance from soil fungi, from which the orchid derives the organic molecules it needs until it can make its own food via photosynthesis in its leaves.
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Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera tesselata) is an evergreen plant (each leaf lives for about four years) belonging to the Orchid family. It has broad, rounded leaves (like plantain) that bear a design somewhat reminiscent of snake skin. For the latter reason, it was used by Native Americans to treat snakebites. Botanists think it must have been used on bites from non-poisonous snakes, for medicinally it does not cure a venomous snake bite.
This species is quite similar to Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (G.pubescens), the most common species of rattlesnake plantain in New England, but its leaves lack the broad white stripe down the middle and its flowers as not as tightly clustered. At this time of year Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain’s tall flower stalk is bedecked with tiny, delicate, white orchids, each the size of a baby finger nail, which are well worth examining through a hand lens.
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