The Vanilla Leaf plant grows from a slender rhizome and often forms huge stands in forest and woodlands. This plant sends up tall stalked leaves directly from a rhizome just under the surface of the ground. At the tip of each leaf stalk sits a three-part leaf, each hairless leaflet shaped like a broad fan, its edges coarsely toothed. The main leaves of a vanilla leaf stand are often arranged horizontally, presenting a pleasing flattish surface. In the shade, the leaves are a soft warm green often in contrast to the predominantly dark green within the forest canopy.
However, when the sun’s rays angle through the trees to the undergrowth, these leaves glow with remarkable greenish warmth. This special sight is striking and absolutely beautiful to see.
The flower stalks rise above their leafy layer directly out of the rhizome, with numerous tiny flowers forming a 2 to 5 cm long creamy white spike at the tip of each stalk. These blooms have neither sepal nor petals, but consist of a spidery mass of eight to 10 stamens surrounding a diminutive pistil. The flowers bloom from mid-spring in the lowlands to early summer on the mountain slopes, followed by numerous dry fruits.
Vanilla leaf is a widespread species on the coast ranging from southern British Columbia and northern California. In B.C. it is strictly coastal, inhabiting Vancouver Island, the gulf islands, the adjacent Mainland coast, and the Fraser Valley up to the Hope area. Its preferred habitats include moist, shady, open forests and glades, along streams and ponds, but it also grows widely at forest edges, often on sides of roads and tracks that pass through the forest.
The Saanich people of Vancouver Island used vanilla leaf mainly as an insect repellent, gathering bunches of leaves and hanging them to dry indoors to deter flies and mosquitoes.
You can hang Vanilla Leaf indoors to enjoy its sweet vanilla scent. The fresh leaves have little or no fragrance, but if left hanging from a nail or drying in a basket, after a while the sweet vanilla scent will lightly drift through the room. Even a scant three or four leaves can perfume an entire room for several weeks. It is also called sweet after death because of its ability to smell so nice after picking it.