Another Snake — Another Orchid

In a previous post, I introduced a neat little orchid with a viperous name – The Green Adder’s Mouth Orchid. Today we visit another serpent orchid – the Rattlesnake Plantain, which is our most common orchid along the East Coast of the US. Goodyera pubescens is one of four members of the genus and they can be difficult to tell apart so we will concentrate on G. pubescens or the “hairy one”. OK, the obvious question – What does it have to do with the Rattlesnake? Native Americans did use it as a questionable counter to a viper bite but please don’t do that as it will not work. The connection is the venation of the basal leaves. They resemble (now, please use your imagination) a snakeskin although neither you, nor I, would be startled or stopped in our tracks at the sight of a Rattlesnake Plantain.

A “den” of Rattlesnake Plantain. Note the white venation on the evergreen basal leaves.

I remember vividly my first encounter with an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. My son, Paul, and I were hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia when we casually explored a rocky ridge that opened to a warm Spring sun. That, in itself, should have put us on alert as Rattlesnakes seek warmth and the morning sun provided a respite from the previous cool night. My foot was on the way down when I instinctively stopped it in mid-air as a five foot long Diamondback woke from his dreamless snooze and bolted in the opposite direction. I think I yelled – I know I yelled! Paul and I followed the serpent (Don’t do that!) to a small opening in a huge rock. He then turned to face his sleep disturbers and with an unforgettable rattle let us know that further approach would be met with repercussions. We stopped and just admired the snaky pattern of diamonds and heeded his warning, backing up slowly, and watching each step for serpentine relatives.

“”Don’t take another step – just back away – and we both will have a better morning”.

The Rattlesnake Plantain is memorable but it doesn’t rattle and certainly won’t retaliate. I am not convinced that the white veins on the dark green leaf resemble the scales of a rattlesnake – maybe a green rattlesnake? But this is an orchid, not a viper, so let’s look at the blossom and get back to more pleasant pursuits.

A summer bloomer.

It takes 4 to 8 years for a juvenile Rattlesnake Plantain to begin blooming and then it is very particular as it requires a relatively dry May to set the blooms. With lots of Spring rain, the stalk will wither and blooms will be lost for that season. With a bloom, however, a runner will be sent from the mother plant to another favorable spot and a new orchid plant will be born. Thus an area will be slowly colonized and a “den” will be formed as in the first photo.

Blossoms are small and don’t resemble any part of a rattlesnake’s anatomy.
The attraction is obviously the leaves.
The Rattlesnake Weed is a member of the Sunflower family and its basal leaves might be mistaken for our orchid – but it thrives in open fields, not the woods, and the flowering spike will nail the ID.
The Rattlesnake Master is similar in name only and is at home in the open prairies of the Midwest.

I can’t think of any other wildflowers with “rattlesnake” names but I am sure there are many common names I haven’t encountered yet. Let’s take another look at our orchid of the day.

No – not our orchid – try again.
There she is! No venom – no fangs – no fear!

Our snake encounter is over and now we will seek other Georgia wild orchids. We just have to watch each step. We don’t want to disturb any small orchid that may be hidden in the dead leaves or anything else that might be lurking, waiting, sleeping.

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