Common name: Vanilla-leaf, deerfoot, goosefoot, sweet-after-death
Achlys triphylla is native to western North America from British Columbia to California. This herbaceous perennial grows from rhizomes in moist areas in deep woods to forest openings. A dramatic plant, it pushes its way through the earth in March and heralds the coming of spring with its vivid green leaves. The leaves are large and fan- shaped with three asymmetrical blunt-toothed leaflets. The plant reaches a height of 30 cm/12 in.
In April a single stem grows to 20 cm/8 in above the leaves where numerous tiny flowers create a bottle-brush-like flower spike. If you are in the woods when the sun filters through and shines on the leaves, you will see a stunning sight. The leaves seem to warm up to a vibrant shade of chartreuse green seldom seen in the forest. The Saanich of Vancouver Island often used vanilla-leaf as a deterrent for mosquitos and flies. They would hang bunches of the leaves to dry and place them around doorways. The dried leaves give off a sweet vanilla-like scent. This explains another common name vanilla-leaf has: sweet after death.
The genus name Achlys comes from the ancient Greek goddess Achlys. She was the mist that came just before death. The specific epithet triphylla means ‘three leaved', referring to the trifoliate leaves. The leaflets help to identity vanilla-leaf. If you bend back the middle leaflet, you will see an upside-down set of moose antlers. But if you bend back the two side leaflets, you have a goose or deer foot - two more common names for this unusual plant. The pictures were taken in spring in the BC Habitat Garden.
Text and photos by Hughie Jones