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The Rattlesnake Orchid

By Amy Renfranz (

Article Published: May. 2, 2013 | Modified: May. 2, 2013
The Rattlesnake Orchid

The small, evergreen leaves of the rattlesnake plantain will soon sprout a stalk.

Photo submitted

We are only a few weeks into spring, and I have already taken 453 pictures of various wildflowers.
Mind you, at least 50 of them are of a particularly beautiful wake-robin trillium.

My name is Amy, and I have a springtime problem: an impulsive compulsion to examine the world in bloom. Many naturalists suffer from this affliction, which is known the world over as “Wildflower-Induced Hysteria.” Doctors refer to it in their notes as WIH.

WIH sufferers will show signs of their sickness. They can be seen hiking the trails alone and even in the rain. Their pants will be dirty at the knees. They are extremely happy during warm spells in early May.

Scientists have discovered that during long periods without wildflowers (otherwise known as “winter”), WIH sufferers can go into deep depression. However, this depression may be lightened by prolonged exposure to the sufferer’s photographs of last season’s wildflowers.

This week’s question came in from a fellow sufferer of Wildflower-Induced Hysteria. Somehow, he was able to look past a bloom to discover a bundle of interesting leaves down below.

Late last week, I was examining the flower of the mayapple plant when I discovered another small plant below it. This plant did not have a bloom, but beautiful leaves. It appeared that the leaves came straight out of the ground. They were in a small tight bundle. Each leaf had a silver stripe down the middle. What is this plant? – Harvey, Deep Gap

Harvey, the little plant that you found is one of my absolute favorites. It is an evergreen, perennial orchid, named “rattlesnake plantain.”

Rattlesnake plantain has strikingly attractive leaves, which are arranged in a basal-rosette. They are a deep green with a network of light-colored veins and a broad silver stripe down the middle. People say that these leaves resemble the skin of a snake, although the leaves do not resemble snake’s skin in that they are slightly fuzzy.

In the next few weeks, a long stalk will begin to grow from the center of the leaves. During the summer, small white flowers will bloom at the top of the stalk.

Some people are surprised to find out that this common plant is an orchid. However, one close look at the bloom will expose rattlesnake plantain’s similarities to other varieties of the Orchis family.
Though it may not be as showy as its lady slipper cousins, this little flower is certainly a jewel of the forest. Come summer, you are bound to find a WIH sufferer kneeling beside it. She will be peering through her loupe and will examine the blooms until some part of her soul is completely satisfied.

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email ( All of your questions will be answered. One or two will be featured next week. See you on the trails!

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Association Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

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