The Orchid Nobody Wants

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Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). Source: Joachim Lutz, Wikimedia Commons

Orchids are such desirable plants that’s hard to imagine there is a least one that doesn’t attract many favorable reviews … but there is indeed one and it’s Epipactis helleborine or broad-leaved helleborine. This widely distributed Eurasian terrestrial orchid long ago made it to the New World where it has spread like wildfire thanks to its very fine wind-borne seeds and is now abundant throughout eastern North America, from Newfoundland to the Great Lakes region and south to Tennessee. It is also locally common in many regions of the West Coast and, to a lesser degree, the Midwest.

Most people don’t realize it’s an orchid, though. They just see a plant they didn’t plant … and want it gone!

The flowers look quite intriguing up close, but they’re very discreet in the garden. Source:

It forms an upright stem from 1 to 2 ½ feet (30 to 80 cm) tall, arching at the tip when it bud, with broad, pointed, parallelly ribbed leaves. In mid to late July or in August, small greenish purple to pinkish flowers, somewhat nodding, form on a one-sided terminal spike. If you look closely, you’ll clearly see its bowl-shaped labellum, proof it’s an orchid.

The colors are variable: just in my own yard, I have mostly green ones, some pinker and a few that are quite pretty in purple. The labellum is often a different shade from the pointed tepals.

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Seed pods. Source: Père Igor, Wikiimedia Commons

After the flowers fade, ribbed dangling seed capsules remain green until fall, then turn brown and open.

I find it seems to love mulch and somehow manages to germinate in the most carefully mulched beds, one of the few plants able to do so.

Reigning It In

Yes, you can call this a weed if you want. I don’t. I actually like it. And although it does show up in the shadier parts of my yard (it seems to prefer shade to sun), it’s not exactly a very obtrusive plant, nor does it take over. It just pops up here and there, even in spots totally dominated by tree roots where little else will grow.

It is apparently hard to get rid of. Certainly, pulling or digging it just seems to make things worse, as the slightest bit of rhizome remaining will produce a new plant. It’s said to be highly resistant to herbicides too, although I have no proof of this, as I don’t use such products.

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Wben you cut it back, it will resprout, so cut it back again. Source: Orchi, Wikimedia Commons

If you really want to get rid of it, keep cutting it back each time it appears. If it shows up in a lawn, just mow it down. If you constantly cut off its leaves, it won’t be able to carry out photosynthesis and will (eventually) die.

I just leave it be. It’s just not a dominant enough plant to be worth fighting … and it’s pretty enough in its modest way. I suggest learning to like it!20180626A

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

2 comments on “The Orchid Nobody Wants

  1. I have these coming up here and there – always wondered what they are! You’re right, it’s not dominant enough to make the effort to eradicate it. Plus, I find them almost impossible to pull out – the roots are too tough!

  2. Ann Evans

    I have these too. They first appeared last year after I renovated a corner of the garden and now a few more this year here and there, as you said. TY for the info!

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