White Snakeroot has a deadly past and most commercial farmers recognize the dangers, but many modern homesteaders or small farmers (especially those who are new to homesteading) may not. Thousands died before the cause was discovered, so if you are homesteader, this is one to look for in the fall while it is flowering and easiest to spot.
White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is native to eastern North America and is most visible in the fall because of its abundant white-flowers, so this is a good time to spot it. White Snakeroot is common in woodlands and roadside landscapes, but is most abundant along the margins of woods within easy reach of grazing animals. Before it flowers, White Snakeroot is a nondescript plant that can grow to 3 feet or taller. It has alternate heart-shaped toothed leaves.
The Wicked History of White Snakeroot
This is the plant that killed Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, in 1818 at the age of 34. Many who lived at that time suffered or died in the autumn of each year and cows, horses and other grazing animals would stagger around until they died. Humans who consumed their milk or meat would suffer weakness, vomiting, tremors, delirium, and possibly death. The culprit was White Snakeroot (which contains the toxin tremetol) and it grew in abundance in or along the margins of livestock grazing fields. Usually, by the time the animal showed symptoms, their milk and meat had already gotten into circulation and sickened humans.
Early in the 19th century, some doctors and farmers began to realize the cause of the sickness, but Anna Bixby, an Illinois doctor, furthered the research. She did field studies, found the White Snakeroot, and fed it to a calf to confirm it was the cause of the sickness. She tried to spread the news but, given that it was the 19th century and word was slow to spread, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the cause was widely recognized. As a result, farmers began to fence in their livestock and the poisonings slowly decreased.
The agricultural industry acted on this information and took steps to protect livestock. However, information about White Snakeroot is not widely known outside of the agricultural industry. With the growing interest in homesteading, and in obtaining foods that are organic, this reminder of an old sickness from times when homesteading was the way of life may be very timely. That said, keep a close look out for this wickedly poisonous plant and keep your livestock FAR away from it. Should you ever notice symptoms in your livestock, do not use the milk or meat until you are certain White Snakeroot is not the cause. Here is close up photo of the leaf structure :
Have you seen this plant on your property? What steps are you taking to eradicate or isolate it?
Stewart, Amy. Wicked Plants: the weed that killed Lincoln’s mother and other botanical atrocities, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Mary is a naturalist who is interested in learning everything she can about the plants seen in everyday life and when hiking. Mary is not a botanist by trade but a citizen scientist like countless others out there she’s met in the field and online who share a common interest. During the day, Mary is a statistical programmer in the pharmaceutical research field. It’s really hard to spot a naturalist, isn’t it? Naturalists don’t fit in standard-sized boxes really well.
Mary discovered that Jo and Eddie were interested in wild edibles and wanted to help educate them and others about the plants she’s identified and to share information. She’s interested in keeping everyone safe and making sure an accurate identification of a plant can be made by readers. She wants to explain how to identify plants accurately and will include some information about how to identify the leaves, stems and flowers (if any) as well as where the plant is found and at what time of year.