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

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

10 comments on “The Orchid Nobody Wants

  1. Pat Stamp

    I have a few in my garden and I love the quirkiness they add to it. I’ll cut them back before they make seed but have no plans to up root or try to kill them.

  2. Kim forett

    This is my favorite wild plant. They’re beautiful….

  3. Susan Van Duyne

    I LOVE these orchids. In an urban garden, especially in a big city, it is hard to have any native orchids. I have tried to grow other hardy orchids, but this one showed up about 6-7 years ago and has moved from one side of my property to the other. It disappears and then reappears someplace else. It IS an orchid and It is a nice addition to my hybrid and species orchids.

  4. Laidback Gardner if you find this has not taken over your garden you have not had it in your garden long enough . It is highly invasive and shows up everywhere . Digging does not work , spray bombing with a Herbicide seems to abate it somewhat . It’s a noxious weed as far as I and my neighbors are concerned !

    • Interesting! In my yard, it remains a very minor invader, showing up here and there, then disappearing after I cut it to the ground a few times. In fact, I’d say it’s definitely decreasing.

  5. I have gardened at my house for 49 years and I know my weeds. This one showed up for the first time about 8 years ago. It took me two years to realize what a menace it is because it is so very difficult to get rid of! This spring I bought 100 red flags to mark all the plants that have shown up. More than ever! I used all the flags! And there are still at least 20 to 30 more. And this after zealously and obsessively trying to rid my garden of this plant over the last six years
    . I’ve tried digging but any weed fragment turns into new plants. Instead of one I might have five in a small circle the next year, obviously I’ve missed the wide ranging root tips. It takes multiple applications of full strength Roundup to make the plants look dead, but I suspect they are t dead and just reappear the next season. I use a small brush so I am very selective. Some gardeners have recommended switching to a brush killer. Others recommend cutting off the top and quickly applying a pesticide to the open stem end. One year I bought a hypodermic syringe and injected Roundup. And this year, in spite of my efforts, I have well over 100 plants to kill!
    So, no, coexistence is not an option. No way.

    • Brian Coffey

      Completely agree with Janet. Late May seems to be its peak time. Mine is multiplying exponentially!! Cutting them with the mower does NOT work. I now see a few “baby” ones in multiple places. I wonder if even fragments of the leaves could also start a new plant. It’s either that or I have a vast and growing network of rhizomes under my entire lawn.

      I did get rid on one (I think) by carefully digging down 6-8 inches and a 6-8 inch diameter around a good sized plant in the lawn, hopefully the extent of the rhizomes, but can’t be certain yet. I also marked mine, but am now loosing count there are so many. I think I got rid of another one by VERY carefully dripping RoundUp on the leaves and dripping down the stalk —- multiple times. I have not seen it return …. yet.

      I thought about the hypodermic syringe, but you’re implying it didn’t work? I may cut a few stalks right at the base to test the photosynthesis theory.

      Very, very disturbing weed if you care about your lawn.

      • At least fragments of the green part of the plant do not produce new plants: it will only grow from rhizome sections or seed.

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

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