This week the land is full of blooming white snakeroot. A relative to Joe Pye Weed, the white flower of this plant looks fuzzy. Only when you take out a magnifying glass are you able to see the delicate tiny white flowers that make up the blossoms that catch our eyes as we walk by the plant. The flower heads resemble the blue flowers of ageratum, the common plant you find in gardens. This is definitely not a plant to treat lightly. It is poisonous. There is another white flowered plant that blooms around this time of year called Boneset. This plant has been used as a medicine for centuries. The two plants are closely related and easily told apart if you look at their leaves. White snakeroot has stalked, heart-shaped leaves and Boneset has lance-like leaves that seem to surround the stem.
White snakeroot is a plant you should learn to recognize because if eaten by cows the toxin in the plant is transferred to the cow’s milk. An animal might die from eating a large amount of white snakeroot. If the animal eats small amounts over an extended period of time they will develop an animal disease called “trembles” and they can die from the cumulative effects of the plant toxin. People who become ill from the poisoned milk are said to have “milk sickness”. Milk sickness claimed thousands of lives in the early 1800’s. Their families would relocate, blaming the sickness on “cursed land”. Abraham Lincoln’s mother allegedly died from drinking this poisoned milk. Confusion concerning the cause of the sickness continued up to the early 1900’s. Nursing calves and lambs may die from their mother’s contaminated milk even though the mother may appear perfectly healthy. Cattle, horses and sheep are the animals that are most commonly poisoned by this plant.
Several sources state that Native Americans used white snakeroot tea to treat diarrhea and kidney stones and may have use the smoke from the leaves to revive unconscious patients. According to some sources, the Native American term used for white snakeroot translated into “smoke a person”. Unfortunately, no mention is made of which tribe or language. The common name of this plant comes from the practice of making a poultice with the root of the plant to treat snake bite.
All my references repeatedly state that the plant is poisonous so I would not recommend experimenting with white snakeroot. I choose to admire it and remember the many challenges the early pioneers faced in these mountains.