A Weedy Orchid (Epipactis helleborine)

Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) is a European Orchid that is invading many woodlots and gardens in Michigan. In 1968, Ed Voss wrote an article for the Michigan Audubon Newsletter titled “A Weedy Orchid?” Ed’s prediction proved to be correct so I removed the question mark from my title.

Epipactis helleborine

Profile of flower, an opening flower showing the green sepals which form the outer bud covering, close-up showing droplets of nectar

Imported for its supposed medicinal values, it has colonized much of the state. The oldest specimen for the state was collected in 1919, in Berrien Co., in the southwest corner of the state. In the 1930s it was found on the campus of Michigan State. When Fred Case wrote the first edition of his Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region this was one of the few orchids growing wild in the state that he had not found. I first found it in 1973 in the lawn of the main branch of the Detroit Public Library. A few weeks later I saw it in the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula. It is now recorded from 40 counties in Michigan and doubtlessly occurs in many more.

It is now common in the eastern part of the Upper Peninsula. Large groups can be found in Hartwick Pines State Park especially among the old growth pines. It occurs in Royal Oak’s two Nature Parks. I am starting to see it as a garden weed. My church in Huntington Woods has several hundred plants in one flower bed. Lewiston Lodge in Montmorency Co. has this plant throughout its landscaping. It is a weed that has invaded my garden in Troy. The Michigan State Extension even has a post on controlling this species.

Epipactis helleborine

Plant in natural cedar woods, group of plants in landscape (note domestic viburnums), close-up of spike

The plants look more or less like non-hairy lady’s-slippers. Helleborine is taller and the leaves are only twice as long as they are wide.  In the wild it can be mistaken for Long-bracted Orchid which blooms earlier, has smaller flowers, much longer bracts, and a notched lip.    At least two named flower color forms occur in Michigan. In the common form the flowers are reddish but a green flowered form (f. viridens) often occurs. Sometimes plants with flowers reddish-purple can be seem. Populations can have all color forms.

Epipactis helleborine

Three color forms of Helleborine

This orchid is expanding its range in Michigan and should be an early find for a beginning plant hunter. In time, we will tell whether it proves to be a pest.

Copyright 2013 by Donald Drife

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22 thoughts on “A Weedy Orchid (Epipactis helleborine)

  1. I am tracking spread of E. helleborine in North America.
    I collected a lot of literature, contacted numerous herbaria, databases and persons but got no records from Detroit.
    I would like to ask you for more information on the distribution of the species in Michigan and elsewhere in North America.
    Best regards Wojciech Adamowski

    • Regarding your request for more information on the spread of E. helleborine, much of what I know is in my blog post. There are two links listed below, one for the state of Michigan, and the other from the USDA. You may find more information there. About the Detroit area specifically, the Michigan Flora website does not have specimens recorded from the Detroit tri-county area, but the plant does occur there and is becoming quite common, as mentioned in the post. Hope that this is some help to you.
      http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=EPHE from the United States Department of Agriculture has a range map for the United States

    • I am finding this all over my yard this spring, and I did not notice it in previous years. It has spread even more viciously in a neighbor’s yard. I live in Oakland County.

  2. Just discovered this orchid in my back yard summer of 2014 in the grass growing in a clump. The local nurseries were not familiar with it and could not advise as how to control/eradicate it. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington Ont where I live also could not give me further information. I left it and sprayed with weed spray for dandelions. This wilted the stalks and I thought it was over. To my surprise it appeared again in the spring of 2015 in the grass and several places in the flower beds. This plant is in partial shade under a linden tree. I sent a sample to the University of Guelph and got an immediate response with identification so I immediately Googled it and found your web site. Thank you for the information.
    This plant is now in southern Ontario, primarily Burlington, Ont. Canada where I will and will have to deal with it.

  3. I just discovered this orchid last year cutting grass under a pine tree & this year I FOUND ONE UNDER MY OAK TREE. i LIVE ON THE NORTH SHORE OF RICE LAKE IN HIAWATHA ON.

  4. I found this orchid growing in a wood lot near Bayfield Ontario. This was the first time I saw it, but will likely see more of it if it is as invasive as described

  5. We were hiking off trail this weekend around the southern border of the porcupine mountains and spotted a couple E. helleborine plants in seed. Then I read your post about you spotting it there and thought, “ah ha, that has to be it”. I had never seen it before. Sad to see it in those old forests.

  6. Thank you! This page gave me a satisfying eureka moment. I’ve been trying to ID this plant since I first saw it three or four years ago here in Delta County. The Peterson Field Guide was no help since the helleborine growing near me is purplish/brownish, not green as listed in Peterson’s and Google searches of brown wild orchids produced nothing useful. (I thought I’d found something so rare it had never been classified.)

    • Mary,
      Glad I could help. This is the problem with a wildflower guide arranged by color. Roger Tory Peterson would never do a bird guide arranged by color. I used Newcomb’s wildflower guide. It has a simple key. You might want to check it out (I still have a Peterson wildflower guide.)

  7. I have zillions now. I am in a north west suburb of Detroit. No one knows how to get rid it it. It’s taking over everything.


    • I don’t know how to control this species. The Michigan State University Extension comments, “Control of this plant is proving to be quite difficult. After consulting several specialists on campus, there appears to be no magic bullet. There has been no research on the effectiveness of herbicides on this particular plant. The plants can be removed by hand, but it is important to get all the roots because any pieces left in the soil can sprout new plants. Reports from clients indicate that single doses of glyphosate (Roundup®) are not effective. It has been suggested that trying products that contain 2,4-D or triclopyr (or both) may be effective as these will often control non-grass monocots. It is important to always read and follow labeled directions to prevent injury to non-target plants.”
      From http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/weedy_orchid_becoming_a_problem_for_homeowners
      I dig plants to control a population. Both 2,4-D and triclopyr are too potent for me to be comfortable using. Good luck. Sorry I can’t be of more help.

      • I found this plant under some pines where the branches had died out inside the cluster, they have never bloomed but I was intrigued by the plant because of it’s orchid like foliage. It starts to send up flower stalks but then dries out before it blooms, guess I should be glad of that. I live on the northern border of Oakland county, MI, across from Lapeer county and have only noticed them for the past few years. Nice to see what the flowers look like but again, glad they have stayed under the trees and not flowered!

  8. We have this weed in the San francisco Bay Area. Last year, I noticed it for the first time, and it took until this spring to ID it. It grows from under our concrete driveway into our clay soil, into our nice flowers beds etc. I have been trying to dig most of it out. It does grow several inches deep. So, I dig deep to remove as many of the fleshy roots as I can get to, then pour boiling water into the holes I have dug. It seem to stop it, but it persists as it finds other routs to grow. I have been told to keep at it, as there is no know solution. But as a Master gardener, I also know boiling water won’t hurt the soil, nor my near-by espaliered apple.

  9. I live in Harrison Twp. and just discovered the plant in my garden for the first time this year. It looked interesting so I left it alone until it bloomed. Based on some of the earlier comments, sounds like it would be wise to remove the invaders now while they are few in number. Thank you for the information and photos that helped me identify the plant.

  10. I was thrilled to find a beautiful little orchid plant in the rocky border around my strawberry patch! Now, I learn that I should pull it; that is has become invasive in NE Wisconsin. I live in a rural area if SE Wisconsin…I am having a very difficult time bringing myself to pull this plant out but the more I read, the more I think I should – Very sad…I have found no other orchids on our property.

    • Broad-leaved Helleborine has disappeared from my yard. I have a densely shaded yard and much of it has root competition from other plants. Helleborine thrives in normal, mulched garden beds and can be difficult to control.

  11. I have this invasive plant in my front lawn and garden beds in Kanata, Ontario. The only way I have been able to remove it, is to literally dig a deep hole around it and gently handle (finger) the soil and lift it out. If you leave any root fragments behind, another plant will appear. 🙁 I have tried non-selective herbicides to no avail. One other possible method has been to inject the stems with javex, but even this has to be repeated. Good luck, folks.

  12. We are being invaded with this outside of Milwaukee Wisconsin. Last year in a mulched berm and now it is coming up in our lawn. Digging it is impossible as you can’t get deep enough to get all the roots. Round up is not working.

    • The best method I have heard is to pull each shoot as the plant comes up. It takes several years to kill it. A tough plant.

  13. It has now reached the Garry Oak woods of Southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia! I moved into a home here in Victoria, BC in July and found numerous examples all over the front and side yard. Could not ID it until my neighbour said “it’s Helleborine” . She thought it was native to here. Your thread has warned me to start attacking it right away. Unfortunately we also found a plant in Mount Douglas (aka Pkols) Park a “natural” park here in Victoria. I will try and return and pull it up ASAP as we do not want it spreading like elsewhere.

    • You should be aware that there is another species of Epipactis, Epipactis gigantea, native to the west coast of North America. I did not mention that in my blog post, since it does not occur anywhere near Michigan. You will want to be certain of your identification before you start removing plants. Also, I would not pull any of the plants on public land or in parks without first getting permission the land managers.

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