Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens) is a perennial orchid that grows on the bark of fallen conifers. Harvest (thoughtfully, for it is sparse in some areas, and doesn’t grow once a forest has been too disturbed) in the fall and you’ll see that it truly is an orchid, with spongy roots that thread their way through narrow passages in rotting pine bark. The roots are impossibly soft, and seem to wind their way into places unfit for heartier roots, and so its wisdom unfolds with its form, and we can see the brightness offered in this seemingly shy forest plant.
Despite the environment of decay, or perhaps because of it, there is no more joyful plant in the forest than Rattlesnake Plantain. The rosettes, hugging the ground and hiding in the darker places, catch my eye like little jewels every time I am in the forests near Portland, even in late fall. It is a deep forest plant, not a city dweller, but not for a lack of agreeability. Its job requires solitude and darkness, as well as the home of an old pine tree’s body, and so a stand of largely undisturbed conifers where traffic is light is where you’ll find it. This signature makes it a good plant to give attention to as Winter Solstice approaches, for the promise of Solstice is Rattlesnake Plantain’s yearlong message: Light and Dark are in harmony and together they bring us life. Light consumes darkness and darkness is nourishment for light. Life is sponsored by death. They belong together, the most primal of couplings, and one we struggle to understand. But Rattlesnake Plantain is not struggling. Look to it and you’ll see.
Rattlesnake Plantain can be used topically for scratches, much like the more common Plantain of the great american lawn. It’s juice can be consumed or used directly for soothing eyedrops, but the most widespread use of this little orchid was as a childbirth aid. The native people of North America, as well as Northern Europe, all used the plant for the same reason according to Michael Moore, for “birthing women who [were] having more than the usual pain, discomfort, and panic” (217, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West). They would chew the leaves fresh according to Moore, although they can be dried and used later, whenever they felt the need for support in birth. My experience with Rattlesnake Plantain leads me to suggest it for birthing problems as well, but more specifically for the mental or spiritual kind. For cuts and scrapes I can go to many plants who are plentiful and unthreatened in their habitat, including the little Plantain at our feet wherever the ground has been disturbed, but for the primordial darkness before the birth of something new, Rattlesnake Plantain seems specially suited. I feel a kind of birthing panic in the dark of the year before Solstice, when many things are dying, and the rebirth of other things seems far away, or difficult. The promise of a new beginning is not yet realized. For this existential discomfort, give your attention to Rattlesnake Plantain.
I stopped to sit with Rattlesnake Plantain in the forest this fall by accident, if you believe in such a thing, after I was caught by its intense joy on my way to the ever-demanding future. Stumbling through a small patch of woods towards more Elderberries on a bright day in late September, I found myself surrounded by dozens of Plantain rosettes, scattered about my feet like spilled treasure, and my mind turned to harvesting them for the first time. But when I bent over to make an offering to the little beauty, I was directed to give my acknowledgment to the large tree to my right instead. I was surprised by the request as I squinted into blue sky to drink in the magnitude of the nearby pine, and realized it was the largest conifer in this patch of forest. The pine, a remaining old growth tree that had been left untouched in the previously logged area, was a serious presence. As I looked the other direction, I saw the remaining upright trunk of the pine tree that had fallen, undoubtably the former elder in this small village of plants, whose body was sponsoring the many Rattlesnake Plantains now growing at my feet.
After acknowledging the pines, both standing and fallen, and feeling permission to harvest, I set about removing one of the rosettes from it’s home. It wasn’t easy removing the plant’s roots from the intimate pathways it formed in the bark. Soft and deeply embedded in the rotting wood, Rattlesnake Plantain partly lives inside the fallen body of the pine it so reveres, gently breaking down its mightiness with the most delicate softness. Why the plant would want me to acknowledge its benefactor instead of it was no mystery now. The joyful support of little Rattlesnake Plantain is the former grandeur of a mighty pine, and this debt of sweet gratitude is never forgotten as it grows. What has been is in harmony with the life that now is: they are deep allies, the pine and Rattlesnake Plantain, richly complicit in their life and death.
So Rattlesnake Plantain sings the body of its beloved elder back into the earth, and we step over such small and potent miracles nearly every time we wander off trail in the conifers of the Pacific Northwest. Here is the grace I hear in the voice of Rattlesnake Plantain as well as in Solstice: that just a small amount of light, if consistent and joyful, is enough to herald great change. Whenever you feel like you cannot shake your grief, that you are not strong enough to meet your dreams in the face of significant loss, consider Rattlesnake Plantain.
You might not even need to harvest this little gem for a significant effect; it seemed odd to try and tincture the little bit of it I brought home, honestly, like I was doing something very unusual. Perhaps the plant has no familiarity with being tinctured at all, and wondered, out loud if you will, at my methods. Looking in the photo below, you can see it has lost some luster just a few hours later in my bowl, probably mostly due to a loss of moisture, but the tincture has a notable energetic imprint, and one I’ve barely begun to explore. Even a few drops are soporific and relaxing, and make it easier for me to remember what is lovingly allied with me. Perhaps even an essence of the plant would offer the same wisdom. Consider your method before harvesting. Many subtle medicines are grandly healing, and a gross amount of this plant seems unnecessary, indeed, even its signature suggests otherwise.
If available to you, sit with Rattlesnake Plantain in a shady bit of forest someday. Stop, at least for a moment, and try a nibble of the leaf: fresh, grassy, and a little nutty. It might be enough to help you remember that what has come before supports you now; something to grease the wheels of your grateful acknowledgment. Turn your reverence to the sweet harmony of the dead and the living so native to this Plantain’s life. Remember the joyful complicity of the mighty and the small. With the help of Rattlesnake Plantain, remember that Life isn’t a competition, a war, or a cause for endless lament; Life is a dance of gratitude, and everything that has ever been is invited to join.