White Snakeroot - a Dangerously Pretty Native Plant!
Updated: Sep 20, 2021
Native plant pick #6 for September is white snakeroot (ageratina altissima - previously eupatorium rugosum). The name comes from Native American tribes using a root poultice made from snakeroot to treat snake bites.
Plant snakeroot where dogs and young children won’t have access to it is because it is extremely poisonous if eaten. In the 1800s so many people in rural areas died from drinking milk from cows that had grazed on white snakeroot that it was called milk sickness. It infamously killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother when he was a child.
I planted a snakeroot plant in a somewhat protected area next to native tall thimbleweed (anemone virginiana) which is also poisonous. I'm creating a little poison patch where the benefits of both plants are not outweighed by their toxicity. I’ll make sure they won’t spread to areas where dogs might nibble on them or children walking by could mess with them. I haven’t made labels for either and will indicate they are poisonous when I do.
Snakeroot is typically found in woodlands and meadows and grows 2-4 feet tall in partially shady, moist areas. It is adaptable and in my yard is about 2 feet tall and growing perfectly fine in a somewhat dry, fairly shady area near a maple tree. Snakeroot self-seeds and spread through fibrous rhizomes to quickly form colonies. I have just one snakeroot that I planted in the spring, so I’ll have to wait until next year to learn just how assertive it is!
The leaves of snakeroot do not stand out and it is unassuming when not flowering. I forgot I had planted it until I noticed the bright white flowers last week!
From late summer through fall snakeroot offers pollinators such as native bees, moths, flies and butterflies a nectar source. Even though it is toxic to mammals, there are insects that eat it, and overwintering birds enjoy and spread the seeds.
So far I haven’t seen too many pollinators on my snakeroot, but it is next to a large colony of grass-leaved goldenrod (euthamia graminifolia) and they seem to be getting all the early fall pollinator love right now!
I have hundreds of varieties of native plants in my yard and continue to add new plants for biodiversity. I'm also trying to learn as much as I can about how each native plant grows intown Atlanta to help ensure success for others who want to create healthier ecosystems by adding native plants to their yard. My initial impression is if I was just starting out, snakeroot is not one of the first native plants I'd add to my yard. Yet in a typical back yard it might be a good plant for erosion control or a challenging wild area where it can spread without people and pets around. I usually encourage all native plants, but this is not one to have if you are any sort of 21st century homesteader!