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Beware The Snakeroot

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Beware The Snakeroot!
By David Ira Kagan
       It’s a beautiful, native, white-flowered perennial herb.  But it’s a poisonous plant (some consider it a weed) that can even kill.  In fact, it’s notorious as the plant responsible for the death of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abe Lincoln’s mother!
       It’s the white snakeroot—also known as richweed, white sanicle, ageratina altissima, or eupatorium rugosam.  And it’s growing and blooming prolifically this fall along the Pine Creek rail-trail.
       When cattle, sheep, horses or goats eat its stems or leaves, it can cause a sickness that’s called “trembles” or “staggers.”  The animals shake, salivate excessively, discharge nasally, become inactive, find it difficult to breathe, and may eventually die if enough was consumed at one time or over a longer period.
       Snakeroot contains a powerful toxin called tremetol, which can be passed onto humans through the animal’s milk.  Referred to as “milk sickness,” this was reportedly the cause of Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s death on October 5, 1818, at age 34, when her son Abraham was only 11 years old.
       That year in the fall, there was an outbreak of the illness at the Little Pigeon Creek settlement in Spencer County, in southern Indiana, where the Lincolns had lived since moving from Kentucky in 1816.  Nancy’s uncle and aunt, Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrow, who had moved from Kentucky to join the Lincolns, died of the poisoning before their niece succumbed within two weeks of her own first symptoms.
       According to the National Park Service’s Internet site,, “It is written that more than half of the deaths that occurred early in the 19th century in Dubois County, Indiana, were caused by milk sickness.  The illness was most common in dry years when cows wandered from poor pastures to the woods in search of food.
       “In man, the symptoms are loss of appetite, listlessness, weakness, vague pains, muscle stiffness, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, severe constipation, bad breath, and finally coma.  Recovery is slow and may never be complete, but more often an attack is fatal.”
       Blooming in late summer and early fall in northcentral Pennsylvania, white snakeroot favors moist, well-drained soil and semi-shaded, edge-of-the-wood areas, although not totally confined to these conditions and locales.  Much of it lies along the Pine Creek rail-trail, even growing in places right through the path’s stone surface at the edges.  Especially prolific patches exist south of the rail-trail bridges at Torbert Village and at Ramsey, roughly 4 and 8 miles, respectively, north of the trail’s terminus at Jersey Shore.  And it seems to be a good buddy of the goldenrod, both blooming together in many places.
       According to Wikipedia, the overall height of the snakeroot is usually 1 to 3 feet, possibly up to at most 5.  Its many, small, composite white flowers (mostly at the tops of the stalks) catch the eye.  Only about a-sixth-of-an-inch across, each rounded cluster consists of 10 to 25 “flowerets,” not very discernible separately to the naked eye.  After blooming, its small seeds with downy tails are released into the wind.
       Its major leaves average 3 to 4 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide, arranged opposite each other, and are toothed, rounded at the base, and tapered to the end (ovate).  Their undersides clearly exhibit three main veins.
       Now, readers, don’t be worried!  According to the National Park Service, in modern times, with more woodlands cleared and cattle having adequate pasture even in dry weather, the incidence of “milk disease” has very greatly diminished.  Further minimizing the chance of illness today is the practice of “mixing of milk from many cows at the dairy.”  And modern knowledge allows farmers to avoid exposing their cattle to the snakeroot to begin with, and also allows quick identification should an animal become sick, circumventing any possible human problem.
       So enjoy what really is the beautiful sight of the flowering white snakeroot if you go out soon this fall to bike or hike along the Pine Creek rail-trail.  Just limit it to looking!    

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