Broad-leaved Helleborine’s Look-a-likes

Coeloglossum viride

Long-bracted Orchid L & C                                                       Yellow Lady-slipper R (Note hairs)

Many people have posted comments on an earlier blog post about Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). There is a lot of confusion regarding the identification of this species. I recently saw a photograph of this orchid identified as Spotted Coral-root  (Corallorhiza maculata). Broad-leaved Helleborine has several color forms and some of the field guides do not account for the variations.

Epipactis helleborine

Close-up of Epipactis flower showing distinctive orchid flower structures

If you have a plant in flower you can recognize it as an orchid because it has three sepals and three petals with one of the petals modified into a lip. The reproductive  organs are fused into a column. The leaves are parallel veined. (Note: Sepals are the outer covering of a flower bud. Petals are inside of the bud.)

Broad-leaved Helleborine’s flowers are about 15mm (5/8 inches) across and the lip is turned in at the tip.

Epipactis helleborine

Smooth leaves and stems of Broad-leaved Helleborine

When not flowering Broad-leaved Helleborine is commonly mistaken for one of the lady-slippers but its leaves and stem are smooth. Lady-slippers (Cypripedium spp.) have hairy leaves and stems. Helleborine normally has more leaves than a lady-slipper.

Long-bracted Orchid (Coeloglossum viride) has smaller flowers with notched lips and is not as coarse a plant as hellebore. It grows in natural areas and I have never seen it invading a garden.

Epipactis helleborine

Root of Broad-leaved Helleborine showing growth bud and side view of flower

While this is not a gardening blog many people ask about controlling this species. The only way I know is to try to dig out the plant. If you leave any of the fleshy root behind it will come back.  Note the growth bud for next year’s plant in the photo. Most orchid species have fleshy roots so please make sure you have the plant correctly identified before you dig. My earlier blog post showed this species growing with domestic Viburnum and, in spite of repeated digging, that colony is still growing. Plants appeared in my wildflower garden, but died out without any interference from me.

Broad-leaved Helleborine is probably growing in every county in the state. Learn the plant when it is flowering so you can identify it later in the year.
Copyright 2016 by Donald Drife

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Wildflowers in Winter: More Plants Having Small Seedpods

Here are some of the other southeast Michigan winter wildflowers with small pods. By small I mean shorter then 13mm [1/2 inch] and a diameter less than 6mm (1/4 inch).

Hypopitys monotropa


Pinesaps (Hypopitys monotropa) is also called (Monotropa hypopithys). Upward pointing styles and a loose spike are the characters of this species. Pinesaps are leafless plants that live off of tree roots that they attach to via a fungus. The fancy term is myco-heterotrophic  plants. The flowers hang down but as the seedpods develop they turn upward.

Gentiana andrewsii

Closed or Bottled Gentian

Closed or Bottled Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) in the winter is just like the flowers but without the color. It is difficult to identify the Closed Gentian group to species when they are flowering. The seedpod shown here was from a colony that I identified when it flowered in the fall so I know which species it is. Opposite leaves and the distinct seedpod shape identify this as part of the Closed Gentian group.

Gentiana andrewsii

Closed or Bottled Gentian

Orchids have distinctive 6 parted seedpods. Hanging from the end of the capsule are the dried up petals and sepals. Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) is commonly encountered even in the city. See blog posting from August 2013. Its leafy spike with many seedpods is distinctive.

Cypripedium acaule Epipactis helleborine

L-Pink Lady-slipper R-Broad-leaved Helleborine

Lady-slippers have large capsules and when in seed the species are identified based size, habitat and leaf remnants or leaf scars. Pink Lady-slipper or Moccasin Flower (Cypripedium acaule) has a single seedpod on a stem without leaf scars.  I know of pinewoods where 1000’s of plants bloom and only a dozen plants set seed.

Verbascum blattaria

Moth Mullein

Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria) has 5mm (3/16 inch) diameter spherical seedpods on short, curved, upward pointing pedicels. Pedicels are the stalks that support individual flowers or seedpods on an inflorescence. Dried clasping leaves often remain along the main stem.
Copyright 2015 by Donald Drife

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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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