One of the most unique, or dare I say, unusual plants growing in Missouri tallgrass prairies is rattlesnake master. This native herb is found throughout the Central and Eastern United States. Their scientific name Eryngium yuccifolium comes from the Greek reference to their spiky appearance and their yucca-like leaves. This plant looks like it belongs in a desert setting, rather than a tallgrass prairie. To me however they resemble the spiky musk thistles we are all familiar with. They are not related to either of these plant families, but rather the carrot/parsley family. If you crush or break open a leaf-- the smell of carrot or parsley will waft its way to your nose giving away the plant’s heritage.
These plants are made for Missouri’s ever-changing weather, and the hot drought conditions of summer. They have massive root systems that store water when rain is in low supply. They grow in most any soil condition but do better in well drained soils that get full sun. Lack of sunlight and too much water will make weak plants that topple over. They reach heights of four feet; however taller plants have been recorded. Each multi-branched stem may produce ten to forty spiky heads. Each head may contain 106 individual small greenish white flowers. A single plant can produce up to 4,240 individual flowers! The leaves are long, spiny, and sword-like, much like the yucca plant it is named after. They bloom from May through the first of July, but some plants continue to bloom well into September.
This perennial also goes by the names button eryngo, button snake root, corn snake root and sea holly. These common names hint at their importance to Native tribes, such as the Mesquakies, for their ceremonial and medicinal uses. John Adair (January 9, 1757 – May 19, 1840) an American pioneer, soldier, and politician, documented that Native Americans would chew the root of the rattlesnake master, and spit it into their hands. Thus, preventing rattlesnakes from biting them during ceremonial handling of rattlesnakes. Incidentally, Adair County in Missouri is named in his honor. The dried seed heads were also used to create ceremonial rattles.
The sap and roots were used to make a bitter tea to treat fevers, spasms, urinary issues, whooping cough and breathing problems. Chewing the root reportedly increased your appetite and could increase saliva production. A poultice could be made from the root to treat rattlesnake bites, and to help aid the healing of the umbilical cord of newborn babies aiding in it falling off. Probably one of the most historically valuable uses for this plant was in making textiles. As far back as 7,500 years ago Indigenous people used the fiber of this plant to make shoes, clothing, and purses. This was especially true for tribes in the Midsouth (Ozark regions) and the Southeast. Many of these fibrous creations have been found partially intact today.
The Cherokees name for this plant translates to “a little base of mother corn that encompasses all” and describes the leaves of the plant which resemble the leaves of corn and surround the base of the plant.
This perennial takes roughly two to three years to produce the unique seed head and is spread by seeds dropping to the ground. It can spread readily in the right conditions and makes an interesting addition to any flower garden. Numerous butterflies, bees, wasps, and other pollinators love the heavily fragrant flowers and are frequent visitors. Goldfinches, quail, and pheasants eat the seeds during the winter, making this an important food source. Voles, and other rodents eat the crowns of the flower heads effectively destroying the ability of the plant to drop seeds for next years crop. In areas where rodent populations are large this can have devastating effects.
Rumor has it that if you have a fear of snakes, planting this wildflower near your front door will effectively keep snakes away.
Will this plant treat rattlesnake bites? Probably not, always best to seek professional help in a situation like that, rather than relying on finding a nearby plant and taking the time to create a poultice that may or may not work. Will it prevent a rattlesnake bite in the first place? Definitely not! Native American peoples, as well as early settlers had knowledge of the plant life around them and utilized it the best way they could to help in often devastating circumstances with limited results. It is interesting however to learn about how plants and animals got their name and for what they were traditionally used.