White Snakeroot

White Snakeroot

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Ageratina altissima

Origin: Eastern North America

Improvement status: Wild

Seeds per packet: ~200


Life cycle: Perennial

White snakeroot is a pretty perennial best known as the cause of "milk sickness," a sometimes fatal condition brought on by drinking milk from animals that have been eating this plant (Abraham Lincoln's mother is believed to have succumbed to milk sickness). It can cause animals to get sick as well, so it's definitely a plant that people who manage livestock should learn to identify and do their best to keep away from their animals. People should not consume this plant either.

Insects, on the other hand, have plenty reasons to love this plant. Native to the eastern half of North America, many bugs rely on it as a critical source of late-season nectar and pollen. Flowering from late summer to frost, in some places its the only flower around late in the year, making it a crucial "hunger gap" food source for many native insects. It's attractive to a wide range of species, including leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.), Halictid bees, wasps, various flies (Syrphid, Tachinid, bee flies, & others), butterflies, and moths. Many of these are parasitoids and predators that help keep pest insects in check. The leaves are also a food source for the larvae of many species, including gall flies and the beautiful ruby tiger moth (Phragmatobia fuliginosa). Given the terrifying downward spiral of insect populations, growing native plants like white snakeroot provides an important service to the whole biosphere.

Snakeroot gets its name from the reported use of the plant among indigenous peoples as a treatment for snakebites — though it is no longer believed to be effective for this purpose. It's said that a Shawnee woman taught a white woman about the toxic nature of this plant in the 1830s, and that ultimately led to the broader settler-colonizer population understanding its dangers. Some herbalists still find uses for this plant, including using root tea for fever. diarrhea, and kidney stones, and burning the leaves to revive unconscious people. We don't have enough information to recommend any of these practices. But for all of the reasons listed above, we still think this is a great plant to grow!

Formerly classified as a species of boneset (Eupatorium genus), it has been now reclassified as Ageratina. Our seeds come from our friend Aaron Parker of Edgewood Nursery in Maine.

GROWING TIPS: White snakeroot can handle a range of placements, from shade to sun. In its natural habitat it can often be found along forest edges, in rocky areas, or in dappled shade in woodland clearings. The plant can grow to between 3 an 5 feet tall, so in the garden it is best as a background plant. It's good for that shady corner where nothing else grows. This plant can get weedy if you give it half a chance, so keep an eye on it.