With the passing of the hot humid days in late summer I feel more like stepping out of air conditioning and catching a breath of fresh air. Just a Leisurely stroll through my property. I had spotted a hummingbird a few days ago and was kinda hoping that he’d decided to hang around for a while before heading South. He escaped my lens that afternoon and I was ready for a do-over. I was paused near the Jewelweed because I know that the hummingbirds live the sweet nectar as much as the bees do. Thats when I noticed the newcomer to my patch of wilderness. Small delicate white flowers with odd tubular structures growing in clusters. The canopy of my forest is still thick enough to hide the small songbirds that dart about from branch to branch but I can hear them chirping.
My attention is drawn back to the interestingly delicate flowers. They remind me of baby’s breath in an arrangement. They’re beautiful to look at but unlike most of the plants that I have on my blog these are deadly poison. The poison is how White Snakeroot earned it’s footnote in history. The toxin is able to contaminate not just the milk but also the meat of livestock that eats it. In the 1800s being poisoned by the contaminated milk was actually called milk sickness. According to Wikipedia the fatalities ran into the thousands and was the suspected cause of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the mother of Abraham Lincoln. Learning this fact does make me wonder how much Snakeroot has influenced pasteurization requirments.
In 1830 the toxicity was uncovered by Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby. It’s said that a Shawnee woman taught her all about the plant in addition to how it was used as a poultice on snakebite. ( I am not able to verify medicinal value for this one. I know from personal experience that the bite of a copperhead will heal on it’s own without treatment and therefore it’s very possible that Snakeroot was not the reason some people recovered.)
The risks of contaminated meat and dairy was not enough to prevent people from turning White Snakeroot into an ornamental plant. A particular strain of the plant has leaves that turn dark when exposed to direct sunlight and the cultivar is known as “Chocolate Snakeroot” and is still sold as a landscape plant today.
As for the wild variety that has come to my place I’ll probably just allow it to grow since I don’t have livestock to be poisoned. It does add some beautiful bloom to enjoy in the Fall.
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