Monday, August 31, 2009

Beware White Snakeroot!

I have been looking for wild plants for my flower garden over the last few days, collecting the seeds from wild roadside flowers and planting them in the garden. Most wildflowers need stratification before they can germinate: that is, they need to spend some time in cold soil before they can germinate. So I plant them outside in fall, hoping some might come up in the spring.

One of the roadside flowers I found is this:

Pretty, isn't it? It's called White Snakeroot, or Ageratina altissima. The specimen that I found is about three feet tall. And it's poisonous to cattle and people. In the nineteenth century in Kentucky and Tennessee, a lot of people died from drinking milk from cows that had eaten this plant.

The sickness that killed people in summer in Appalachia was called milk sickness. People vomited and got severe intestinal cramps. Nobody knew what was causing the dreaded milk sickness. In Henderson County, Kentucky, in the summer of 1830, almost half the people in one settlement died of the disease.

It wasn't until 1928 that the American Medical Association recognized snakeroot, and the poison tremetol that it contains, as the cause of milk sickness. But it is said that a woman doctor and her Shawnee friend figured out the problem in the nineteenth century, in southern Illinois. Dr. Anna Bixby had not been to medical school--women could not yet attend medical school--but she had learned midwifery, nursing, and dentistry, the medical fields that were open to women. She practiced in a rural area of Illinois, where milk sickness was a problem every summer. Abraham Lincoln's mother died of the disease. Some people thought it was caused by witchcraft, but Dr. Anna thought there was probably another explanation.

Cattle don't normally eat snakeroot unless they can't find any better forage. So milk sickness usually was worse in drought years, when pasture grasses got scarce and cattle foraged along creeks and wood edges. In fact that's where I found the snakeroot plants in my neighborhood.

Dr. Anna Bixby thought that milk sickness might be caused by something that cattle were eating, so she followed cows around, trying to figure it out. During one of these excursions she meet an elderly Shawnee woman, who had been left behind after the Trail of Tears. Dr. Bixby took this woman in, and the Shawnee woman found out about her interest in milk sickness. The Shawnee woman knew that snakeroot was a poisonous plant, and so the mystery was solved. In communities where it was rooted out, or where cattle did not forage on the edges of woods, the disease did not occur.

After photographing the plant, I broke it off so it would not seed itself around. Nobody here has dairy cattle, but there are a lot of beef cattle, and you can get sick from eating the meat of cattle who eat snakeroot. Also, maybe at some time we will have dairy cattle again around here; it was common until the mid-sixties. I met a woman who grew up on Brangus Lane in the forties, and at that time her family had sixteen milk cows. So, every time I see a snake root plant I will pull it up or at least break off the flowering stalk.

Needless to say, I didn't plant it in my wild garden. I already have something of a reputation as a witch.

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