Broadleaf Helleborine

Broadleaf Helleborine

Broadleaf Helleborine - Epipactis helleborine

A friend sent me a picture of a flower the other day asking for identification.  It reminded me that I wanted to learn more about this flower – a relatively common little orchid.  So, I headed to the woods last night in search of it.  Many orchids have very specific habitat requirements.  This introduced species, sometimes referred to as the weed orchid, is not so discriminating.  I have found it clinging to banks of rocky creeks, under conifers or deciduous trees, and in wide open spaces.  Of course, last night, I couldn’t find it in good light, but I did find it.  The sun was low and the woods were getting dark, so I had to use my flash… something I don’t do often, preferring natural light whenever I can manage it.

It’s fun to poke around the Internet to learn about flowers, especially “non-native” ones.  You find websites from the US that warn of the plant’s invasive tendencies, and websites from Europe that teach you how to care for the plant in your garden.  Around here, I find the “invasive” warnings to be unnecessary, as I rarely find huge patches of the stuff – just an isolated plant here or there.  A paper from the DNR in Wisconsin on this species noted no danger of invasiveness in some habitats studied, but suggested other similar habitats are impacted.  Scientists are keeping their eye on it and some states do have control plans in place.

Broadleaf Helleborine Broadleaf Helleborine

Broadleaf Helleborine is an orchid with multiple blooms per stem reported to come in many color variations from green to white to cream to pinkish-purple.  Several websites claim that Broadleaf Helleborine was introduced to North America for medicinal purposes, though none said what it was used to treat…

So I decided to hit the books.  Google Books, that is.  I found a book about the orchids of Russia from which I pulled these facts:

  • Seeds that find suitable habitat will concentrate all their growth efforts underground for 3 to 9 years before sending up a shoot visible above ground.
  • The plant may not produce flowers until it is 10 or 11 years old.  (Given its slow start, it’s hard to believe it can be invasive, isn’t it?)
  • Once it starts blooming, it may produce flowers annually with the number of blooms on the stalk diminishing in each subsequent year.
  • The full life span of an individual plant may be as long as 35 years.
  • Seeds can be formed via self-pollination, or by cross-pollination.  Wasps tend to be the primary pollinator attracted by nectar, which “may be” narcotic to them.  (Whoa!)

Nothing in that one about medicinal uses, though.  So, I added “medicinal” to my search and found a handbook to plant lectins (whatever they are).  I’m afraid the medical lingo was thick enough that I couldn’t decipher exactly what it said.  My take-away:  scientists have isolated something from the leaves of this plant that does something.  Ha ha.  Good, eh?  Click the book cover image to go to the online text and see if you can decipher it any closer than that.  (Feel free to post your interpretation below!)

Another blogger reported that this plant is used to cure insanity.  I rarely trust bloggers (don’t take it personally), so I started looking and looking and looking to find an online source to confirm that.  The closest I got was a listing in a google books search that looked like this:

Handbook of Medicinal Plants
Supriya Kumar Bhattacharjee – 2000 – 474 pages – Snippet view
Epipactis SW. Orchidaceae Epipactis helleborine (L.) Crantz. : It is a terrestrial orchid with stout stem. Leaves are variable. … The roots of these plants are medicinal which cure insanity. Epipactis latifolia Wall. …

The full text of this book is not available online.  I don’t know how google decides what to display and whether I can trust that these words all refer to “my” flower.  I think it does, based on a little further examination:

Still, I found no primary source for “bringing it to North America” for medical or any other purpose.  I probably won’t look any further, either.  But I do find it fascinating how many web sources simply quote each other.

Anyway… there you have it:  Broadleaf Helleborine, also known as Weed Orchid and Bastard Helleborine.  It blooms from June through September – so as you’re hiking around the woods this summer, keep your eye open for it!  I’ve seen it at Chautauqua Gorge, Bentley Sanctuary, and in the woods behind Bergman Park.  I haven’t been to other spots just lately, but if I see it other places, I’ll add to this list.

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16 thoughts on “Broadleaf Helleborine

  1. Love this little orchid! We had a few of them growing randomly in our front garden, but I haven’t seen them recently. We got a delivery of compost several years ago and they appeared after that. Interesting that there’s less flowers on the stalk in successive years. Thanks for the info.

  2. I recently noticed this species myself over here in southern vermont. I appreciate learning more about it vicariously through your blog – thanks!

    • Whoa. Now that was an interesting little leaflet! Thanks for including the link. (Loved your article about this plant… I have had similar things happen – where I practically break my neck trying to get a photograph of something on a steep cliff, for example, only to find it in a very easily accessible spot a few feet further along the trail.)

  3. It’s blooming here near the coast in CA right now, too. I just put up a post on our find. Thank you for the information. And, I find it frustrating how many web sources do quote each other (even reputable sites like National Parks), so much so that it’s often very difficult to trace the validity of claims.

  4. I have been nature director at a scout camp in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan for the last 11 years, and just came across this helleborine this summer. Checked in a Michigan wildflower reference book to identify it. Can’t remember the author of the book, sorry. Once we found it in one site, we started finding it scattered around camp, never in large numbers.
    The Handbook of Plant Lectins says there are 2 different chemicals from the leaves, both are lectins. Lectins are protein molecules that bind to different sugars. Some lectins are used in determining blood types. Hemagglutination is when red blood cells clump together in a specific manner. Apparently the one lectin from this plant works on rabbit red blood cells, but not on human ones. What is more interesting is that the lectin is ‘inhibitory to HIV-1 & HIV-2’ which means it stops the virus that causes AIDS from doing its thing! This lectin is also listed as working against 3 other viruses: Cytomegalovirus (a herpes virus that can cause problems if transmitted from mother to fetus), respiratory syncitial virus (a virus that can cause major respiratory disease in young children and newborns) and influenza A (one of the many variety of flu viruses). However, this inhibitory activity has only been tested in cell cultures so far, not in any live animals or humans.

  5. I have spent most of this summer in the Adirondacks and came across this flower on my morning walk. Fortunately a neighbor’s mother is interested in Orchids and discovered the name, which led me to your blog. While I have been here, I have been mentored by my friend who is an herbalist, but I did not, nor did she, know of its medicinal properties. Thank you for sharing this (albeit somewhat dubious) information!

  6. I was scrolling through stuff at http://www.erowid.org and checked out oxycodone (percocet), I’m allergic to codeine and have an operation coming up and i wanted to see some info on it, anyways in the lil bio about it it said that a finding was published in 2005 that oxycodone is naturally produce by this lil guy, to what extents I don’t know, which is why I started looking for more info on this plant. which in turn led me here…

  7. I live in a suburb of Buffalo, NY. For at least ten years, I’d been noticing this strange looking plant which sprang up here and there through the gravel around my house foundation. It was exotic-looking (is that another word for ugly?) and I wondered what it was, but didn’t try to research it. It didn’t seem to be producing many flowers. However, today I noticed that it has spread to some neglected flower beds around the corner of the foundation and is blooming! I did some on-line research and discovered what it is. My small piece of land backs up to forest and I always assumed it was a woodland plant which had spread to my yard somehow. I tend to let “volunteer” plants grow where they choose and not get too uptight. I checked the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s Invasive Species list and this plant is not there. Any opinions about whether or not I should try to remove it?

  8. I found this plant in my side yard under a huge pine tree, behind my compost bin. I watched it for weeks as it went from a bowed head to a tall stalk, looking as though it was just setting seed pods. I had a funny feeling about it though, like it was slightly familiar and would burst into color any minute and Voila! There it was in full bloom. Not as colorful as I had hoped but beautiful, nonetheless. My daughter got involved and research led us to this blog. Mystery solved! Hope it comes back again next year…

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