One-sided Wintergreen

Orthilia secunda

Species distinguishing characteristics: 

  • Low-growing plant with a single stem found in mossy coniferous forests
  • Whorled evergreen leaves, basal and often on lower half of stem
  • Nodding, whitish-green, urn-shaped flowers in a one-sided cluster
  • Flowers have a straight, green style protruding from petals
  • 5-chambered seed capsules persist until the next season

Family Characteristics: 

  • Simple, alternate evergreen leaves and woody stems
  • Flowers with 4–5 petals in an urn, dish, or tube shape
  • Stamens, usually twice as many as petals, do not attach to the corolla
  • Capsules or berries are partitioned into 5 divisions
  • Found in acidic habitats, often in association with mycorrhizal fungi
  • Some family members lack chlorophyll
  • Family members include blueberries, cranberries, huckleberries, and rhododendron

Growth habitat: 

Erect perennial, 5–20 cm tall, from slender rhizomes.  Often grows in small colonies.

Leaves and stems: 

A single, smooth stem, often with a reddish tinge.  Stems are slightly woody towards the base.  Leaves are mostly basal and whorled, but several leaves may exist on the lower half of the stem; while several scale-like, leafy bracts attach to the upper 2/3 of the stem.  Stalked, evergreen leaves, 1–6 cm long, have round bases and are egg-shaped with a pointed tip to nearly round.  Leaves are dark green, somewhat shiny on the upper surface and paler underneath, and have small, faintly white-tipped teeth on the edges.

Flowers: 

Pale whitish-green flowers, 3–25 total, on short stalks, 3–8 mm long, hanging from one side of a long narrow flower cluster at the tip of the arcing stem.  Flowers are urn-shaped, 5–6 mm across, with 5 distinct but overlapping petals and 10 creamy-white stamens (pollen organs).  A straight, stout, green style (tubular portion of a female organ) protrudes from the petals at maturity and has a 5-lobed stigma at its tip.

Roots: 

Slender rhizomes with many branches.

Seeds: 

Green, rounded, 5-chambered capsules, 5 mm in diameter, with styles attached.  Stalks elongate and straighten as the seed capsule matures, becoming more erect than the flower stalks.  Capsules open from the bottom to the top to release seeds.  Dried capsules persist until the next flowering season.

Habitat preferences: 

Moist, usually mossy, shaded areas in coniferous forests and bogs at low to lower subalpine elevations.

Interesting facts: 

Both the genus and species name Orthilia, a Greek word, and secunda, a Latin word, refer to the one-sided arrangement of the flower cluster.

The mashed leaves are used medicinally in salves and poultices to treat skin eruptions and snake and insect bites.  Herbalists use one-sided wintergreen in preparations to treat gynecological disorders, including sterility, endometriosis, and irregular menstrual cycles.  An eye wash may be made from a decoction of the roots.  One-sided wintergreen can be used as a substitute for the prince’s pine (Chimaphila umbellata) - a closely related plant that suffers from overharvesting due to its use in the formula for a popular soft drink, as a treatment for kidney weakness, urinary tract and bladder inflammations, mouth and throat inflammations, hemorrhoids, and as a styptic to stop bleeding. 

Biological Classification: