While weeding this spring I came upon a plant I had never seen before. I didn’t plant it. It was among the lilies of the valley under an oak tree, in a partial shade garden. The leaves were similar to lilies of the valley at first glance. I first noticed it when it began to send up a stalk full of tiny buds, quite unlike lilies of the valley. I decided to put off identifying it until it bloomed.
It took several weeks for the flowers to begin opening. I was amazed to see the teardrop shaped dangling buds open into tiny orchid like flowers of purple and green. With the idea that it belonged to the orchid family I searched through my plant ID resources until I came upon its name, Epipactis helleborine.
It turns out this tiny orchid is native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. It’s been in the US since the early 1800’s, the story goes that it was brought here by garden groups for its medicinal purposes. I’ll get to that in a minute. Poor Man’s Lady Slipper or Weed orchid, if you go by common names, has actually been in Michigan for about 100 years, although it hasn’t been recorded in my county yet. This hardy orchid has managed to naturalize across the northeastern part of the US and southern Canada.
Imagine my amusement when I came across a stern admonition from some Michigan “conservation” group warning that Epipactis helleborine is one of those nasty invasive plants that must be eliminated at all costs. Its major crime is that it occupies space that in some minds must be reserved for native species. If you read my blog often you know I don’t subscribe to the notion of plants causing the extinction of other plants, especially when they simply just move into disturbed habitat and prove to be a good fit. Nature puts the best species she can find in an environment, regardless of origin.
Some other states also classify Epipactis helleborine as invasive but most simply list it as naturalized, the same status as dandelions, chicory, and other common plants brought here and which have no major impacts on the environment. I don’t intend to remove it from my garden because it’s a fascinating little plant.
What it looks like
So let’s examine Epipactis helleborine. The perennial plants like woodland edges, partial shade and good, loamy soil. They exist in both dry and wet environments. A mature plant with flower stalk will be about 12-18 inches high. The leaves are blade shaped with distinct parallel veins and they clasp the stem in an alternate pattern. The plant has a root system of thin, narrow rhizomes and is considered a terrestrial orchid; it gets nutrients from the soil. Plants are hardy to zone 3.
In July (in Michigan) Epipactis helleborine sends up a flower stalk. The buds are teardrop shape and dangle from a short stem. Flowers begin opening on the bottom of the flower stalk. They are a typical orchid flower shape, about a ½ inch across, with a pouch on the bottom that contains nectar to attract insects. There are two petals and an odd shaped fused sexual organ on top and 3 colored sepals that look like petals on the outside of it all. Flowers are widely variable in color, according to the literature, but generally green and purple or pink, a few with white flowers have been found. The one in my garden is a light lavender pink and green.
Epipactis helleborine is said to spread both by its tiny seeds and by rhizomes. Some people say it spreads rapidly, others say it only slowly spreads. Location is everything, as they say.
Now the plants aren’t especially showy unless you see them up close and maybe you wouldn’t want them to spread through your entire garden. But they are interesting, (I’m getting to that), and the foliage left after the flowers fade should be no less attractive than lily of the valley or brunnera foliage. Those are the plants near the Epipactis helleborine in my garden. If you needed a groundcover in the shade it seems they would make a pretty good one. A hardy orchid groundcover- that’s unique.
I doubt it would make a good houseplant but you never know. Maybe someone should experiment with that idea. If mine sets seed this year I may try to germinate it indoors and see what gappens.
The interesting thing about Epipactis helleborine
There are over 100 chemicals in the plant and its nectar. The orchid produces scented nectar that attracts insects to its pouch, where they imbibe and become tipsy and drowsy. Drunk, doped insects tend to move slowly and stay on the plant or its nearby relatives for a long time, which favors pollination. The nectar contains among other things vanillin and eugenol for scent and ethanol, indole, and a chemical identical to OxyContin, a morphine derivative, for making insects woozy and feeling good.
Now before some of you start seeing dollar signs with growing a legal source of a drug, you’ll want to know that the nectar also contains some other toxic chemicals that are hard to remove, like “furfural”. Believe me I came across lots of drug culture sites in my research where people talked about how to separate the OxyContin from the more harmful stuff and it was a difficult, time consuming task requiring a lot of complex knowledge of chemistry from what I could see.
The nectar from each flower is a minute quantity and although some plants have 100 flowers the harvest from all of them would still amount to a few drops. To make a profit from producing Oxycontin from Epipactis helleborine you’d have to grow acres of the plant, harvest the tiny flowers and drain them of nectar some way and run the nectar through a lab with lots of expensive equipment. Then you would still have an illegal product.
Now some of you may remember that I said the plants were brought over here for their medicinal qualities before they escaped. Some evidence suggests the plants were used to treat insanity, headache and gout. It’s suggested that the roots were used in these remedies, although modern herbals don’t cover this plant. I suggest you don’t experiment with ingesting the plant, especially if you are drug tested for your job.
I intend to leave the little alien orchid in my garden. I enjoy interesting and different plants. If it spreads I may share some. There’s some links below for more reading on the chemical properties of the plant and one where you can buy seed, although it seems few people know how to get that seed to grow.