Orchids Weeds

The Orchid Nobody Wants

The following article was first posted to this blog on June 26, 2018. I’m reposting it today because I’ve been receiving a lot of questions about this plant recently, so obviously there is an interest, especially since it appears mysteriously in both forests and gardens.

By Larry Hodgson

Orchids are such desirable plants that’s hard to imagine there are any that don’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!

Leaves of broad-leaved helleborine.
Broad-leaved helleborine’s unusual leaves don’t immediately tell you it’s an orchid. Photo: Orchi, Wikimedia Commons

The first thing you see are the curiously pleated leaves in the spring that you might confuse with that other accordeon-leaved plant, false hellebore (Veratum spp.), but which is in no way related.

Arched flowering stem of broad-leaved helleborine.
The flower stalk arches at first. Photo: Jamain, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Flower of broad-leaved helleborine.
The flowers look quite intriguing up close, but they’re very discreet in the garden. Photo: AJC1, Flickr

In mid to late July or in August, small green, greenish purple or 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 ones and a few that are quite pretty in purple. The labellum is often a different shade from the pointed tepals.

20180626C Père Igor, WC.JPG
Seed pods. Photo: 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

Flowers of broad-leaved helleborine.
The flowers are not too striking, but still fascinating due to their complex form. Photo: Lairich Rig, geograph.org.uk, Wikipedia Commons

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, hoeing 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’ve never tried such products.

If you really want to get rid of it, don’t hoe it, but rather cut it back and keep cutting it back each time it resprouts. 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. You’ll actually find it isn’t very persistant if you treat it that way.

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!

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, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

14 comments on “The Orchid Nobody Wants

  1. It’s delicate and beautiful. I’m keeping it!

  2. Pingback: What’s That Strange White Plant? – Laidback Gardener

  3. Yes, we got it here also, at least locally. I notice it only in coastal regions, but have never seen it in the Santa Clara Valley, just a few miles away. Perhaps it dislikes chaparral climates. Some people here insist that it is native. Although not overly common, a few come up in more refined parts of the landscape. I would like them gone, but will not put too much effort into getting rid of them.

    • I just found a lot of them in very well mulched strip between our hedge & the street. Didn’t know what the were. Have never seen them before. My thumb is brown & black & blue, & I can’t grow anything, so am going to let them be. We’re in Saratoga at base of Santa Cruz Mtns.

  4. I have a couple that pop up reliably every year. Like you, I don’t mind it and just let it be. There are worse weeds to fight than this one.

  5. Alison500

    I just was on a garden tour today in Falmouth, Maine. Lo and behold, the hostess gardener showed us the helleborine she’d discovered under a tree. Like you, she’d been weeding them out until she realized they were orchids!

  6. It grows in my current garden, but I never had it in my former garden 20 minutes away. I’m with you, I kind of like it and don’t find it to be a problem. There are native plants such as certain goldenrods and Canada anemone that wreak far more havoc in my garden. But now you’ve got me thinking: there are plants in a wild area down the street that I always thought were Veratrum, but now I’m wondering if they’re just very big helleborines. I’d have to go down a very steep slope to investigate.

  7. Ann Evans

    While I’ve had it in the past (Michigan Zn 5), not this year for some reason. I did pull a few out last year but I know not all of them. The only thing different this year has been the more than generous rain we’ve received. Maybe they don’t like wet conditions?

  8. Looks good to me, but I have never seen it in the south.

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