“Weeds are flowers too,” said Eeyore, “once you get to know them.”
A few weekends ago, my boo, Isa, and I went on a walk in Prospect Park. She’s an avid birder (is there any other kind?) and I love plants more than cheese, new shoes, and lots of other Very Good Things. It was my first time in the park in the fall and I was amazed that even in October, there were fat, speckled berries on the trees and a rainbow of flowers along every path.
Although birders keep lists for big days (Isa’s that day had a pin warbler, a dark-eyed junco, a clark’s nutcracker, and 9 others), most plant people want more. We like to know where a plant comes from, how people have used it, how it grows, where it got its name, and at least three fun facts to foist on a friend who never asked us to identify it in the first place.
All of which is a long way of saying that it’s high time for a weekly series where we learn everything we can about weeds. I’m starting with intrigue; this weed’s story is a heady mixture of animal husbandry, deadly contagion and, of course, a good dose of misogyny and white supremacy.
As we walked through Prospect Park, every trail seemed to be bordered with clumps of small, white flowers. I identified them as white snakeroot, but didn’t think much of the nondescript blooms until we left the woods. The same white flowers were peeking from under every tree on Isa’s street and had even colonized a pot on her front stoop. Suddenly, like pumpkin-spice in October, white snakeroot was everywhere.
It turns out that you’re most likely to find white snakeroot growing in shaded, moist, and uncultivated areas – just like the wooded areas of Prospect Park and the untended patches of ground under urban trees. Although herbaceous, it can grow as high as four feet tall (which just might be where it gets its latin species name altissima). Its bright white flowers are usually the first thing to catch your eye among the decaying autumn foliage. In fact, the latin genus name ageratina refers to its “unaging” quality. The blooms of this native perennial are 2-6” clusters of what appear to be ¼” flowers. In reality, each flower is an inflorescence composed of dozens of tiny disk flowers. Later on in the fall, the disks are replaced by small white hairs that help the seeds spread in the wind. White snakeroot’s toothed leaves grow opposite on purple-stained stems.
Named for the its root’s more useful property as an indigenous snakebite remedy, white snakeroot is better known for its role as a staunch native defender of what we now call North America. In the 1800s, Europeans were moving farther west on the American frontier. As they formed settlements along the Ohio River, white snakeroot got busy manifesting its destiny as a killer plant.
Europeans initially began noticing their livestock getting “trembles” before seeing the disease jump to humans in 1809. This “milk sickness” caused people who drank the milk of infected animals to become lethargic and experience severe stomach pain. Doctors tried bloodletting – a very much an en vogue (and totally useless) treatment of the day – milksick patients, but death was inevitable. As many as half of all deaths in 19th century Europeanssettlements are attributable to milk sickness. Abraham Lincoln’s mother is probably the disease’s most famous victim.
While Europeans found milk sickness as mysterious as cholera and yellow fever, indigenous residents were well-acquainted with white snakeroot. A member of the Shawnee nation passed knowledge of white snakeroot onto Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby, a European midwife and dentist. Anna’s sister and mother had succumbed to milk sickness, leaving her desperate to understand the cause of the mysterious frontier disease. Milk sickness’s seasonal contagions led Anna to believe that the cause must be a poisonous herb; however, she was unable to identify the culprit until the Shawnee woman showed her the innocuous-looking plant in the 1830s.
Anna taught European farmers to remove white snakeroot from their field and to prevent their cows from wandering in the woods to graze. This female and indigenous contribution to medicine was largely ignored; in 1928, research confirming white snakeroot’s role in milk poisoning was finally published. With the local success that Anne obtained from her medical and botanical knowledge, she became a famous doctor – perhaps the first woman doctor in the state of Illinois. Legend has it that she buried a treasure in a cave in Rock Creek, Hardin County, Illinois. The name of the Shawnee woman who taught Anna about white snakefoot was never recorded.
Today, tremetol poisoning is incredibly rare. Cows who are given other options will naturally avoid white snakeroot. The modern practice of combining milk from many different cows also lowers the risk of milk sickness as tremetol-laced milk from any infected cow will be diluted to a harmless level.
Although white snakeroot was responsible for the deaths of thousands of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and Europeans, there are are plenty of reasons to appreciate it today. As one of the last plants to bloom during the growing season, it provides food for bees and other pollinators who are stocking up in preparation for winter.