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Wisconsin Plant of the Week

Goodyera pubescens (Willd.) R. Br.

Orchidaceae (Orchid Family)

Common Name:

downy rattlesnake plantain


The Goodyera or the “rattlesnake plantains” aren’t plantains at all, but small woodland orchids. Downy rattlesnake plantain is one of four species in Wisconsin and the only one to grow commonly in the south part of the state. It’s found in sandy oak woods, pine barrens, and occasionally in moist woods under hemlock and on mosses. It prefers part to full shade and a rich humus layer over a low nutrient acidic soil.

The plants grow to 40 cm tall from a shallow branching rhizome with a cluster of leaves in a rosette at the tip of each branch. Rosettes die back after producing a flower stalk.  Then lateral branches develop just behind it to form more smaller rosettes eventually forming a large colony.

The leaves of each rosette are dark green to blue-green and fleshy with a prominent white midrib and a network of white markings.  The resemblance of the pattern to snake skin gives the species its common name. The leaves are 3 to 9 cm long, elliptical and on a stalk or petiole.  Leaves persist through the winter and last for several years.

White flowers bloom from July (in upland woods) through August (in cooler swamps) in a cylindrical densely packed spike on a leafless stalk.  Flowers are 6 mm long with the upper sepal and 2 united petals forming a hood over the cupped or sac-like lower lip.  The inflorescence has soft short hairs as do all our Goodyera species.

The other rattlesnake plantains are similar but are distinguished by more loosely packed flowers or a spiral arrangement on the stem.  G. tesselata has smaller leaves, with the white markings in a checkered pattern, but with no white midvein. G. oblongifolia has a white midrib, but lacks other white markings, and has much larger leaves. G. repens has much smaller leaves.

See Orchids of Wisconsin for keys, photos and some ecological info on these and other WI species.

  • Origin of the name: Goodyera, for John Goodyer, an English botanist; pubescens, L., pubesco, to come to maturity, implying soft hairs
  • Range:  Eastern N. Amer., w. to MN, OK
  • WI Range:  Most common south of the Tension Zone
  • Common associates: Red oak, penn sedge, white pine, hemlock
  • Wetland Indicator Status: FAC
  • Coefficient of Conservatism: C = 9 (S&W), C = 7 (MI)
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