When dry, the leaves of vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla) smell like, you guessed it, vanilla. Thus the common name, vanilla leaf. Another colloquial designation for this member of the Barberry Family (Baerberidaceae), sweet after death, also refers to the odor of the dried leaves.
A perennial native, vanilla leaf grows in moist, shady forest glades, openings and edges and along streambanks, especially where the organic matter is high. It can be found to 5,000 feet from British Columbia to Northern California.
Vanilla leaf grows from hairless rhizomes, sending up single leaves at intervals along the rhizome. The rhizomes cross and recross over each other and eventually the leaves form a dense understory.
The basal leaves of vanilla leaf are on long stalks and consist of three fan-shaped, asymmetrical, coarsely blunt-toothed leaflets. The middle leaf is slightly smaller. If the middle leaf is bent down, the two remaining leaves resemble moose antlers. By pushing the two outer leaves back the middle leaf looks (at least to some) like a goose or deer footprint. This gives rise to another name for A triphylla, deer foot. After the leaves die in the fall the leaf veins persist throughout the fall and winter as a lacy network across the ground.
A second stalk grows up in conjunction with each leaf and terminates in a bottle-brush like inflorescence that sticks up above the leaf. The flowers forming the inflorescence do not have petals or sepals. Instead each flower consists of up to 20 long white stamens surrounding the pistil.
Vanilla leaf fruits are dark grey to reddish-purple achenes, each containing one dry seed. The fruits are very finely hairy and leathery. The ventral side is concave with a permanent ridge.
Ethnobotany: Dried vanilla leaf leaves were used as an insect repellent, especially for flies and mosquitoes. Washing with a vanilla leaf infusion helped remove lice, bedbugs and other pests. Medicinally vanilla leaf was used to treat tuberculosis and was an emetic.
The literature gives two derivations for the genus designation, Achlys. One states that Achlys means “mist” and describes the misty clouds of white flowers. Alternately, the genus could refer to the minor Greek goddess of hidden places or of obscurity, alluding to the dimly lit, wooded habitat of vanilla leaf or to its inconspicuous flowers. There is no doubt that the species designation, triphylla, meaning three leaves in Latin, refers to the three leaflets.
These specimens were photographed at Oregon Caves National Monument in Oregon: the flowering plants along the No Name Trail in May and the fruits near the Cave Entrance in July.