Wood plants with whorled leaves

Whorled pogoniaI found this plant in the woods early in May.  Identifying it became an interesting challenge.  There are not too many plants with whorled leaves at the end of a single stalk.  So this was either Indian cucumber root or Whorled pogonia.  The next plant I found — a few weeks later — was this one:

Indian cucumber rootThis clearly was Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) since some nearby plants were blooming with the distinctive flower associated with this plant.  Let’s look at the annual growth cycle for Indian cucumber root and then we’ll return to the first plant (above).

Here is a group of young Indian cucumber root plants.  I suspect they may need several years of growth before they flower — similar to how American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) develops over a number of years.

Indian cucumber rootNearby there was another group of Indian cucumber root plants.  You can see that some of them have developed a stalk rising from the lower set of whorled leaves.

Indian cucumber rootThis rising stalk will have a smaller number of whorled leaves along with the plant’s flowers.

Indian cucumber rootThe next series of photos shows the Indian cucumber root flowers in various developmental stages.  First, a fresh blossom with pollen on one of the anthers.

Indian cucumber rootIn this close-up image, you can see the various female and male flower parts.

Indian cucumber rootWhen the flowers bloom, they hang below the upper whorled leaves.

Indian cucumber rootIn this next photo, you can see several aspects of the developing flowers.  There are flower buds in the center of the whorled leaves.  Then there are the flowers hanging below the leaves (some not yet to the pollen stage, some with pollen on the anthers, and some which have been pollinated).  And notice the pollinated flowers (which have dropped their tepals) now rising above the whorled leaves.

Indian cucumber rootHere’s a closer view of some pollinated flowers which are above the leaves.

Indian cucumber rootYou can scroll back up to the second close-up photo of the Indian cucumber root flower to see how the central ovary sits in the flower and how it then becomes lifted upwards again before dropping its three styles.

The pollinated flowers develop into berries.

Indian cucumber rootAs the berries mature, the upper whorled leaves begin to turn red near their point of attachment to the stalk.

Indian cucumber rootAs the Indian cucumber root’s annual growth cycle winds down, the leaves turn a lighter green color and then yellow.

Indian cucumber rootThe dark berries (sorry–no photo of those yet) drop off and the whorled leaves at the top keep their red coloration.

Indian cucumber rootReturning to the first plant shown at the top of this post. . . .  I saw it bloom the next spring and identified it conclusively as Large whorled pogonia (Isotria verticillata).  Let’s follow this plant through its annual growth cycle.  Here are two young plants in early spring.

Whorled pogoniaAnd here is a cluster of Large whorled pogonia plants.  Two are in bloom.  If you look carefully — way down near the bottom of the photo — between the two blooming plants, you can see a young Large whorled pogonia coming up.

Whorled pogoniaThis closer view of the Large whorled pogonia shows its elegant flower.

Whorled pogoniaCloser still . . .

Whorled pogoniaAnother angle of view of the blossom . . .

Whorled pogoniaAnd a very close view of the interior of the flower . . .

Whorled pogoniaThe flower stalk is ribbed and — depending on the individual plant — more or less twisted along its length.

Whorled pogoniaThis shows the Large whorled pogonia’s flower as it begins dying back.

Whorled pogoniaThis final image of the Large whorled pogonia illustrates the leaves beginning to change color in the fall — and shows the plant’s dried flower stalk and seed head.

Whorled pogoniaNext . . . I created three sets of photos to more clearly compare these two plants.  If you come across one or the other plant in the woods and it is not in bloom, here is how you can distinguish each from the other.

In this photo of the set of lower whorled leaves, Large whorled pogonia (Isotria verticillata) is on the left and Indian cucumber root (Medola virginiana) is on the right.

Whorled pogonia-Indian cucumber rootLarge whorled pogonia leaves are broader than Indian cucumber root’s leaves.  Both plants have leaves with entire margins and parallel veins.

Whorled pogonia-Indian cucumber rootThe stems of each plant are quite different and may prove to be the key identifying characteristic when you find one of these plants.

Whorled pogonia-Indian cucumber rootThe stem of Large whorled pogonia (on left) is smooth, looks soft and perhaps water-filled, and is usually purplish in color.  The stem of Indian cucumber root (on right) can be covered with fine hairs (especially when young) and is quite wiry.

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4 Responses to Wood plants with whorled leaves

  1. Margaret says:

    Many thanks for all your excellent photos and clear descriptions. Your site is a treasure!

  2. Jacob says:

    Dear Angelyn,

    Thank you for all the effort you put into developing and maintaining this wonderful resource for those who cherish the curiosities of the natural world. Your photographs are charming and your descriptions revealing.

    This article helped immensely in identifying a new sight for me on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, cucumber root.

    I look forward to what plants will be highlighted next!


  3. Bill Harger says:

    Thanks for the wonderful lesson.
    I am blessed to have both of these in abundance here in our Eastern NC woods, along with Lilly of the Valley and others.

    Bill Harger

  4. Susan says:


    Thank you for the wonderfully clear, comprehensive pictures. This September I was running to keep up with my 3yr granddaughter in the woods near Albany, NY and just got a quick glimpse of a plant with a whorl of 7 leaves and what looked like a red & green flower at the top. Your photo of the Indian Cucumber at the end of its life cycle gives me a definite identification. I had never seen the plant before, and certainly did not expect to identify it so easily.

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