This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Small, greenish white, the lip pocket-shaped, borne on one side of a bracted spike 5 to 10 in. high, from a fleshy, thick, fibrous root. Leaves: From the base, tufted, or ascending the stem on one side for a few inches, 1/2 in. to over 1 in. long, ovate, the silvery-white veins forming a network, or leaf blotched with white.
Preferred Habitat - Woods, especially under evergreens.
Flowering Season - July - August.
Distribution - Colorado eastward to the Atlantic, from Nova Scotia to Florida. Europe and Asia.
Tufts of these beautifully marked little leaves carpeting the ground in the shadow of the hemlocks attract the eye, rather than the spires of insignificantly small flowers. Whoever wishes to know how the bumblebee ruptures the sensitive membrane within the tiny blossom with her tongue, and draws out the pol-linia that are instantly cemented to it after much the same plan employed by the ladies' tresses, must use a good lens in studying the operation. To the structural botanist the rattlesnake plantains form an interesting connecting link between orchids of distinct forms. In them we see a tendency to lengthen the pollen-masses into caudicles as the showy orchis, for example, has done. "Goodyera probably shows us the state of organs in a group of orchids now mostly extinct," says Darwin; "but the parents of many living descendants."
It has been said that the Indians use this plant to cure bites of the rattlesnake; that they will handle the deadly creature without fear if some of these leaves are near at hand - in fact, a good deal is said about Indians by pale-faces that makes even the stolid red man smile when confronted with the white man's tales about him. An intelligent Indian student declares that none of his race will handle a rattlesnake unless its fangs have been removed; that this plant takes its name from the resemblance of its netted-veined leaves to the belly of a serpent, and not to their curative powers; and, finally, that the Southern tribes, especially, so reverence the rattlesnake that, far from trying to cure its bite, they count themselves blessed to be bitten to death by one. Indeed, the rattle, a sacred symbol, has been employed in religious ceremonies of most tribes. Snakes may be revered in other lands, but only in America is the rattlesnake worshipped. Among the Moquis there still survives much of the religion of the snake-worshipping Aztecs. Bernal Diaz tells how living rattlesnakes, kept in the great temple at Mexico as sacred and petted objects, were fed with the bodies of the sacrificed. Cortes found a town called by the Spaniards Terraguea, or the city of serpents, whose walls and temples were decorated with figures of the reptiles, which the inhabitants worshipped as gods.
Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Peramium pubescens)
The Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (P. pubescens), usually a taller plant than the preceding, with larger cream-white, globular-lipped flowers on both sides of its spike, and glandular-hairy throughout, has even more strongly marked leaves. These, the most conspicuous parts, are dark grayish green, heavily netted with greenish or silvery-white veins, silky to the touch, and often wavy edged. This plant scarcely strays westward beyond the Mississippi, but it is common East. It also blooms in midsummer, and shows a preference for dry woods where oak and pine abound.