Ageratina altissima - White Snakeroot

12 Interesting Facts About Snakeroot

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Introduction

Snakeroot refers to several different species of plants that have historically been used for various medicinal purposes. Snakeroots contain toxins that can be dangerous if consumed, but they also have beneficial uses when applied correctly.

This article will explore 12 fascinating facts about these intriguing plants. We’ll cover snakeroot’s:

  • Origins and history
  • Toxicity and medicinal uses
  • Role in Appalachian culture
  • And more!

Whether you’re a history buff, herbalist, or nature lover, read on to uncover some captivating trivia about snakeroot.

Origins and History

Honeybee on Snakeroot
Honeybee on Snakeroot by Dendroica cerulea is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 .

Fact 1: Snakeroot is native to North America

There are over 30 known species of snakeroot, most of which are native to Eastern North America. They grow abundantly in woodlands from Quebec to Florida.

Some of the most common species include:

  • White snakeroot
  • Black snakeroot
  • Canada snakeroot
  • Virginia snakeroot

Fact 2: Snakeroot got its name from colonial times

In colonial America, native tribes introduced European settlers to snakeroot. They taught them to use the roots and leaves to treat snake bites.

As a result, the settlers dubbed the plant “snakeroot” – a name that has stuck ever since.

Toxicity and Medicinal Uses

Fact 3: Snakeroot contains tremetol, a highly poisonous toxin

All species of snakeroot contain tremetol, a potent toxin that causes tremors. If consumed by humans or livestock, it can be fatal.

During the 19th century, European settlers didn’t realize white snakeroot was toxic. As a result, thousands of pioneers died from “milk sickness” after eating meat from cattle that grazed on snakeroot.

Fact 4: Snakeroot was also used as medicine historically

Despite its toxicity, snakeroot does have beneficial medicinal properties if applied correctly.

Native Americans used it to treat a variety of ailments including fevers, rheumatism, kidney problems, migraines, sore throats, and toothaches.

Fact 5: Chemical compounds from snakeroot are still used in modern medicine

Today, pharmaceutical companies extract beneficial chemical compounds from snakeroot species:

  • Tremetone – used to treat migraines
  • Reticuline – a sedative used to treat high blood pressure
  • Steroidal saponins- show potential as cancer treatments

So while snakeroot can be highly toxic, it also harbors healing chemical constituents.

Role in Appalachian Culture

Fact 6: Snakeroot caused a health crisis in the 19th century Appalachians

When European pioneers settled densely forested Appalachia in the early 1800s, they cleared trees for grazing livestock. This exposed cattle to abundant white snakeroot.

After eating snakeroot, the cattle’s meat and milk became saturated with tremetol toxin. An estimated 50,000 Appalachian settlers died from drinking this tainted milk before doctors identified white snakeroot as the culprit.

Fact 7: Abraham Lincoln’s mother may have died from snakeroot poisoning

Famed president Abraham Lincoln’s early life was marked by tragedy when his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died in 1818.

Doctors were mystified by her sudden illness. However, historians now believe milk sickness from snakeroot poisoning caused her death.

The Lincoln family lived in rural Indiana amid plentiful snakeroot at the time. As settlers, they raised cows that likely ingested the toxic plant.

Fact 8: Snakeroot inspired Appalachian folklore

As snakeroot ravaged Appalachian communities in the 1800s, it spawned grim folk tales that endure to this day.

These stories feature a supernatural illness called “milk sickness” that causes wasting away and death. In remote rural areas, the stories helped explain the mysterious disease killing livestock and pioneers.

Botanical Facts

Fact 9: Snakeroot is a perennial herbaceous plant

Snakeroots are perennial flowering plants with a lifespan of over two years. Most species grow 1-3 feet tall.

They emerge each spring from an underground rhizome rootstock before dying back down in winter. Hollow erect stems sprout from the roots topped by clusters of small white flowers.

Fact 10: There are key differences between black and white snakeroot

While black and white snakeroot share some similarities, they have a few key differences:

Black SnakerootWhite Snakeroot
Solid green stemsStems have purple spots
Flat-topped flower clustersSpiked, vertical flower clusters
Rounded leavesPointed leaves
Less toxicHighly toxic

Fact 11: Snakeroot spreads aggressively

As perennial plants with vast root networks, snakeroots are adept colonizers.

Given fertile soil and ample sunlight, they propagate rapidly forming dense colonies that overwhelm native plants. Without occasional wildfires, they can dominate the forest understory.

Conservation Status

Fact 12: No snakeroot species are endangered

Despite the toxicity of some species, snakeroots as a whole aren’t rare or endangered plants. They remain ubiquitous across Eastern North America.

However, habitat loss has reduced their numbers in certain areas. Several snakeroot species are designated as threatened or vulnerable at the state level.

Ongoing conservation efforts aim to preserve snakeroot populations while protecting people and livestock from accidental poisoning. Signage and fencing now safeguard many snakeroot hotspots.

Conclusion

In closing, snakeroot has an extensive history intertwined with both the healing and harming of North Americans. These unassuming wildflowers harbor toxins that once felled thousands, yet they also offer lifesaving chemical compounds.

Next time you’re hiking the Appalachian woods and spot a snakeroot’s delicate white blooms, think back on its fascinating backstory as both pioneer-era killer and modern medicine. With greater wisdom and caution, perhaps we can finally make peace with this complex plant.


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