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In general, our native ground orchids are rare to the point of endangered; rarely available in garden centers and a delightful treat when encountered in the wild, worthy of our protection. And while still somewhat uncommon, there is one species of wild orchid that has been making its way more frequently into availability through careful propagation: Goodyera oblongifolia, or western rattlesnake plantain.
When not in bloom, this diminutive plant would be easy to miss on a hike, tucked in the fallen duff at the base of a douglas fir; the rosette of small oblong leaves only barely raise upward, though striking in their white striping and mottling, resembling somewhat the patterns of snakeskin that gives them their common name. In mid-summer a short, leafless flowering spike rises from the midst of the rosette, topped with tiny, white to greenish orchid-like flowers, followed by small seed capsules.
(Flower Photo credit © Earl Nance)
The foliage is evergreen, and bothered by little in the way of pests and diseases. Sometimes this plant might be visited by aphids or mites, but it's not common. In garden settings, too much water or poorly drained soil can cause the plant to rot and die. Good drainage is a must, in other words.
In the wild it is often found at the foot of large conifers, in rocky soil that is rich with fallen tree needles, and so will thrive in your garden in similar rich, well-drained conditions, tolerant of a site that is moist to fairly dry, in part shade with dappled light to full shade.
Growing from short rhizomes, it spreads slowly. Being shallow-rooted, once planted it would prefer to be left alone. It is a sweet and virtually trouble-free little addition to your woodland garden.
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Common Name: rattlesnake plantain
Native Range: Western North America, and from the Great Lakes into northeastern North America. Found in rich humus, in dry to moist forests.
Characteristics: Small, evergreen rosettes of leathery green leaves, covered with a mottling of white veining. Grows and spreads slowly from short rhizomes. During summer produces a short, leafless flowering spike with tiny white orchid-like flowers along the upper part of the stem.
Culture: Grows in full to part-shade, often in the dappled light at the base of conifers. Dry to moist, well-drained soil.
Maintenance: Plant them and leave them alone. Over time they will spread non-aggressively with their attractive evergreen foliage.
Pests & Diseases: Occasionally visited by aphids and mites, but rarely.