Featured Creature: Rattlesnake Plantain

What curious creature sounds like it will bite, but is actually used to heal?

It is the Goodyera orchid, and it is a plant of contradictions!

Photo by Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org,
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License

It loves water, but needs well-draining soil. The common name, rattlesnake plantain, was coined by settlers based on its appearance, but also might contain medical truths. Like many other orchids it is a showoff, but in nature it is hard to find.

I thought I knew a lot about this tiny emerald marvel, but then I found out that you can turn the leaves into balloons by gently rubbing the leaves until the two layers separate, and then blow into the stem. That fascinating fact made me want to know everything I could about Goodyera. So I turned to the experts to gather more information than I’ve been able to observe on my own, and now I’m going to share all of the really cool bits with you!

Our best friend the bumble bee absolutely loves some Goodyera nectar, so the more orchids, the more of these barrel-rolled buddies to play with in your yard. But this tiny plant really loves to spread the love, so it also works root-in-hyphae with certain fungi species. By providing the mycorrhizal network with the products of photosynthesis, coveted sugars, the plant feeds the fungi. In return, the fungi not only feeds the plant, but also the seeds of the orchid, which are dependent on the mushroom for germination. 

Worldwide there are 25 species of Goodyera, but for right now we’re going to focus mainly on the oblongifolia (giant rattlesnake plantain), which ranges through much of North America. A similar species, which is primarily endemic to the eastern United States, is the Goodyera pubescens (downy rattlesnake plantain).

Photo by Julia Eden

Plants As Healers

Did you know that Goodyera has medicinal qualities? There are some sources that suggest it can be used to treat snake bites, but that may be conflated with the common name, thought to be bestowed by settlers because of the patterns on the leaves.

What we do know is that these leaves make excellent Band-Aids, naturally adhering to the skin when peeled. Gelatinous goo inside the leaves is sticky, but more importantly, it is likely  antiseptic as well. That same gelatinous inner can be used on burns, or added to a bath to treat sore muscles.

Many Goodyera species are reported to have additional benefits which require internal consumption, but the reports vary and the science is new, so keep a lookout for exciting developments to come. Who knows, one day you could be grabbing a leaf or a seed pod from the garden to treat all kinds of minor conditions! I, for one, am looking forward to chewing on some plantain pain reliever…

Photo by Richard Droker from iNaturalist

How Does Your Garden Grow

I have a confession to make. I work with native plants of the Pacific Northwest, but I am not a gardener. I have killed so many flowers, trees, and bushes that I would have given up long ago if there weren’t other ways to support the propagation and spread of these important organisms. But one plant that has multiplied and thrived for me for years with nary a sign of stress is the rattlesnake plantain. 

There is information on how to grow these plants all over the place. However, the fact that much of it does not match my own experiences leads me to be wary of spreading misinformation. So instead, I’ll focus on the success I’ve achieved with the Goodyera oblongifolia, specifically.

Growing mainly in diverse forests, our leathery lad loves both space and protection, and is often found hiding under the fronds of a sword fern or in a mess of moss. In the spots they really like, families can carpet areas of several square feet. And I do mean families; the lone wolf lifestyle is not the preference for this plantain!

Photo by Julia Eden

Since they are so rare, if you happen to spot one in the wild, please leave it there! Plants can also be hard to find for sale, but seeds are usually easier to find. If you do happen to obtain one for your own garden, there’s a few key tips that will really help your little one thrive and spread. 

  1. Provide wet soil that doesn’t stay wet. I achieve this by using the darkest, richest humus I can find, or pure compost. I then add small lava rocks to increase drainage.
  2. These guys are symbiotic with mycorrhizae fungi so they will need inoculation. A good grower will provide this with the plant, but if you are growing from seed, you will need to get it started manually. The research into which species are symbiotic is new, but there is evidence that the Goodyera orchid has a positive relationship with fungi in the Rhizoctonia genera.
  3. All of your plants need to eat. I have found that rotted wood can provide this function while also increasing drainage. My original propagation pot is at least four years old and I’ve never added food beyond the wood they were planted with. Look for the deep red stuff that you can easily break apart with your fingers and add lots of chunks when planting.
  4. A lot of the information I came across noted that “no shade” is recommended. While I can not speak specifically to all of the varieties across the world, I guarantee that oblongifolia needs full to dappled shade. They grow best in bright areas that get very little direct sunlight, preferably in the evening. 
Photo by Julia Eden

Big Names, Darling – Names, Names, Names

I would like to take a moment to give a special shout out to Tina Wynecoop for her article, available on the Forest Stewardship Notes blog, for being one of the most fascinating pieces on a plant I’ve ever read! Working with folks from tribes local to her area in southeastern Washington State, Tina gives us a glimpse into several Native American names for Goodyera oblongifolia that I have not found elsewhere. People from the Sinixt Nation use names like “frog leaves” and “Indian Band-Aid”, while one of the Salish tribes uses a term that translates roughly as “splitting open easily”.

I also found a couple European common names for our little friend that are quite endearing: ladies’ tresses, and the best one, jade orchids… It just sounds so exotic!

Want to learn more about orchids? Check out our previous Featured Creature on the whole orchid family and some of its many interesting members by Tania Roa, or this piece by Fred Jennings on rattlesnake plantain’s North American neighbor.

Anyway, back to the garden I go. I have balloons to blow up for a faerie party I’m hosting during the next full moon!

Whimsically Yours,


With a passion born in rivers, Julia Eden has spent the last decade crusading for the environment. Educated in Pacific Northwest native flora, decentralized water retention, and holistic land management, she is dedicated to living a new and better life. While not quite a Luddite, she would very much like to live in a cave with a wolf and an internet connection.