Downy Rattlesnake Plantain: Winter Woodland Orchid

By Betsy Washington, Northern Neck Native Plant Society

One of my favorite sights while walking in winter woodlands are the beautiful evergreen leaves of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, Goodyera pubescens. This eye-catching beauty is one of our most common woodland orchids and instantly recognizable by its exquisitely etched leaves with an intricate network of fine white veins on either side of a broader white midvein. The broad oval leaves are dark blue-green and arranged in low basal rosettes consisting of 4 – 8 leaves. The common name, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, is quite misleading but so named because the broadly oval leaves supposedly resemble those of a plantain (Plantago) a common lawn weed. The ‘Rattlesnake’ in the common name is derived from the intricate venation of the leaves that were thought to resemble the skin of a snake and the leafless fruiting stalks were thought to resemble the ‘rattle’ of a rattlesnake. ‘Downy’ refers to the densely wooly flowering stem and flowers.

Downy Rattlesnake Plaintain white flowers and stem – Photo by Betsy Washington

This beautiful orchid is native to woodlands across much of eastern North America ranging from Quebec and Minnesota in the north to Oklahoma and Florida in the South. It occurs in nearly every county in Virginia in moist to dry forests, ravines, bluffs, and slopes and is often associated with oaks or conifers.

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain spreads both by seeds and vegetatively by rhizomes or underground stems that run just below the leaf litter each ending in a new rosette. A single plant may form a loose colony of handsome rosettes, but new offshoots may take several years to bloom, so that not all members of a colony bloom at once. In mid-July and August, a single densely glandular and woolly flowering stalk rises from the center of a rosette bearing 20 – 80 densely packed, small, round, white flowers towards the top. The flowers are small but look closely and you will notice that each white flower has a pouch-like lower lip (or labellum) bordered by two small sepals, while the two upper petals and sepal form a small hood-like structure over the reproductive parts. Even the flowers themselves are downy with white pubescence. The curious flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and at least a couple of species of metallic green bees.

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Colony – Photo by Doug McGrady at Flickr License CC-BY 2.0

After flowering, small globose fruit capsules form containing numerous, tiny dust-like seeds. These seeds, like those of many orchids, are quite unusual in that they contain no nutrients for the tiny embryonic plant inside. Instead, each seed is dependent on finding a specific mycorrhizal fungal partner to supply nutrients to sustain it while it germinates and grows – a high stakes game in which many seeds undoubtedly fail to germinate. Once a rosette has flowered, it dies back but the new offshoots continue to grow and will bloom in a few years. The next time you are walking on a wooded trail in winter, marvel at the exquisite beauty of these amazing orchids and the fact that they are so common and widespread despite their complicated life history.

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Flower Detail – Photo by Anne Parker

Surprisingly, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain is relatively easy to grow in a woodland garden and more surprisingly is sometimes available from specialty native plant nurseries. They prefer dappled sunlight or part shade in rich, moist to dry, acidic soils and appreciate sharp drainage. It needs humus-rich soil covered with a layer of leaf litter which preserves moisture and where their mycorrhizal partners are more likely to be present. Best planted in spring after the last frost, they may take several years to bloom. As with all native plants and especially orchids that are so often dependent on mycorrhizal fungal partners to survive, please never collect plants from the wild. If you choose to grow them, buy only from a reputable native plant grower that propagates them responsibly.

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Foliage – Photo by Betsy Washington

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes by Native Americans from infusions to treat colds and pleurisy, to a kidney tonic, to a dressing to treat burns, toothaches, and rheumatism. During the Middle Ages, a concept known as the “Doctrine of Signatures” was followed which stated that where plants resemble parts of the body, they could be used to treat ailments for that body part. Hence, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, with its rattlesnake-like leaves was used by early colonists to treat snake bites just like Liverworts were used to treat liver ailments. According to John Hayden, professor of Botany at the University of Richmond, “…none of these applications can be recommended in modern medicinal practice.”

This magnificent orchid is better left where it grows to be enjoyed on walks through your favorite woodland where it will enchant and lift winter spirits. But for avid gardeners, we hope to have a few responsibly-raised, nursery propagated specimens available for sale at our fall plant sale in September.

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain was the Northern Neck Native Plant Society February 2024 Plant of the Month, and the VNPS 2016 Wildflower of the Year.


  1. Lawrence Stritch on March 17, 2024 at 10:23 am

    Very nice, informative article. Kudos to the author.

  2. john roberts on March 17, 2024 at 10:29 am

    Lovely !

    And easy to grow .

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