When I was bird watching with a group at Tifft Nature Preserve, I photographed a wooded area with a forest floor filled with flowers.
By showing it and not adding a caption to what the flowers were…
I got asked about a plant I pictured in the post, BOS Field Trip – Yielding Monarchs. It covers a large dark, moist area in the woods of Tifft Nature Preserve.
I called Tifft experts to make sure I was correct on identifying this plant. Two gentlemen told me it is White Snakeroot, Ageratina altissima. It is a fascinating plant with an interesting history behind it. A woman working there told me the interesting story about the plant.
White Snakeroot is a poisonous plant found in woods and thickets, growing in rich, moist soil. It spreads by rhizomes and seed and covers shaded woodland floors. It blooms late summer and grows to a height between 18″ to 48″.
The distribution is widespread according to the USDA. For information from the map go to Plants – USDA. There is also a Lesser Snakeroot, Ageratina aromatica L. that looks very similar to White Snakeroot.
Black Snakeroot, Actaea ramosa ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ can be purchased for the garden. Cimicifuga racemosa is another taxonomic designation of what is commonly called Black Cohosh, or Black Snakeroot. Called by either name, they grow very tall in the garden. If you want all the trivia, like medicinal uses, taxonomic uncertainty, etc. about the garden varieties, go here.
Containing the toxin, tremetol, White Snakeroot can cause tremetol poisoning in humans. It is also poisonous to other mammals such as sheep, goats and horses.
If a cow eats snakeroot, it can be passed along in the meat or milk to make humans ill or worse. Long before current farming practices, cows came into contact with it in dry years where pasture land was unproductive or insufficient.
The cows searched out food where ever they could find it, like in woods. It took until the nineteenth century before farmers knew the plant was causing people to get ill or die. They then made the connection to their cattle and the milk production.
If in milk, it produces “milk sickness”.
Here is where it gets interesting. It was thought to be a possible cause of death of Mary Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s mother. She became ill after caring for some neighbors who were sick and was thought to have died from “milk sickness”. No one yet knew the cause of this illness. Thousands in the Midwest died of the poisoning before realizing White Snakeroot was to blame. Plants can be pretty dangerous if one does not know what they are.