The downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is one of eastern North America’s native orchid species. It occurs in the entire eastern half of the U.S. and Canada from Ontario and Quebec south to Oklahoma, Mississippi and Florida. Commonly found growing in dry to moist upland forests, the downy rattlesnake plantain has a circular arrangement of leaves close to the ground, called a basal rosette, and a single flowering stalk that rises up from the center. The green oval leaves are between 1.5 and 2.5 inches long, and have a network of silvery veins and a broad silver stripe down the center.
It takes several growing seasons before downy rattlesnake plantain will flower. When it does, It flowers in late summer with small white flowers densely packed on a slender cylindrical spike, which grows to be 6 to 18 inches tall. Although all parts of the plant are covered in a fine downy hair, it is particularly noticeable on the flowering spike (pictured below). Each flower stalk can produce 20 to 80 small white flowers in a dense terminal spike. Each small flower has three sepals and three petals, one of which is distinctively modified as a lip.
Despite the name “plantain”, downy rattlesnake plantain is not related to the common lawn weed plantains, but does resemble them due to its similar arrangement of basal leaves. In fact, the common name “plantain” has been applied to many diverse, unrelated plants that have broad, flat leaves. The word “plantain” is derived from the Latin word planta, referring to the sole of the foot. The term “rattlesnake” in the common name may allude to snakeskin like appearance caused by the prominent veins on the leaves. Alternately, it could reference the fact that Native Americans used to use G. pubescens to treat snakebites.