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Eryngium yuccifolium Michx.

Full sun
Common name(s): Rattlesnake master, Button snakeroot
Family: Apiaceae (Umbelliferae)
Type: Perennial
Size: 2-5' high
Texture: Medium-coarse
Range: New Jersey . Minnesota . Texas . Florida
Flower
Click for more images!
Introduction:

Resembling something out of the Southwestern United States in both name and appearance, Rattlesnake master has an arid, heated look about it. Perhaps it's the yucca-like foliage, resembling its desert counterparts. Or perhaps the stiffness of the plant, reminiscent of evolutionary wonders that stand erect in even the most blinding heat. Or perhaps it's the flowers, miniscule and nestled deep within a hardened carapace.

No matter what the reason, it always comes down to one simple fact: this is quite a striking plant. Ideal for gardens as specimens or in small groups, this native species will add texture and color to almost any perennial border. And don't worry it doesn't attract rattlesnakes! The name is derived from an old belief that the roots could be used to heal rattlesnake bites.

Foliage:

Stiff and only 1-4" wide, the sometimes 3-foot long leaves have small prickles running along the edges. They are parallel-veined, meaning that the veins run lengthwise, unbranched, from the base of the leaf to the tip. They are probably most similar to the leaves of Yucca spp. hence the name yuccifolium.

As Swink & Wilhelm point out, this species is of morphological interest "because it is a dicotyledon with parallel-veined leaves looking like those of a Yucca plant."

Flowers:

Borne in spherical, thistle-like heads around 1" diameter, the individual flowers are a greenish-white and are surrounded by larger pointed bracts. They have been observed blooming from 2 July through 15 September in the Chicago area.

Fruit:

The fruit essentially looks the same as the flowers, only darknening to a dull brown and remaining on the stalks for the remainder of the season. They are sometimes gathered and used in dried flower arrangements, but provide equal interest in the winter landscape.

Each seedhead contains many 1/4" long seeds (mericarps).

Pathology:

There are few pest or disease problems with Rattlesnake Master, although the tender new growth is well-liked by lovestock and other grazing animals.

Propagation:

Seeds should be collected when they turn brown in early autumn, but prior to their falling apart. The seeds should be brought indoors and crumbled out of their heads, then allowed to air-dry for several days. They should then be sealed and placed in the refrigerator.

Plants will easily self-sow in the garden, but if seeds were collected the previous fall, they are easy to grow in pots filled with a sandy medium. They will germinate best if allowed to stratify for four weeks under 1/4" of soil.

Established plants can also be divided easily once they become large enough.

Comments:

This is an excellent accent plant for difficult soils in arid climates. As a native of the prairie, Eryngium yuccifolium is well-adapted to drought and excess sun. Its bold flowers are reminiscent of Echinops ritro, but aren't quite as showy. The yucca-like foliage makes it an excellent texture-providing specimen.

Suggested uses:

Definitely an accent plant, although care must be taken not to make groupings too excessive. Clusters of three should be sufficient for most landscapes. This species is best kept in the rear of the border flower stalks can reach up to 5' in height.

In mulched or fertilized situations blooms will be much more prolific, possibly requiring staking on less-established plants.

Companion plants:

Andropogon gerardii, Aster ericoides, Aster laevis, Comandra umbellata, Dodecatheon meadia, Euphorbia corollata, Helianthus rigidus, Heuchera richardsonii, Hypoxis hirsuta, Lespedeza capitata, Lithospermum canescens, Parthenium integrifolium, Petalostemum purpureum, Phlox pilosa fulgida, Ratidiba pinnata, Silphium integrifolium deamii, Silphium laciniatum, Silphium terebinthinaceum, Solidago rigida, Sporobolus heterolepis, Stipa spartea.

Medicinal uses:

Although there is currently no scientific evidence to support older claims of medicinal properties by native Americans, Rattlesnake Master was a popular herb in the 18th and 19th centuries.

James Adair, an 18th-century Indian trader, was one of the first to document medicinal uses of Rattlesnake Master. He recounted tales in which Indians chewed the root, blew it on their hands, and then handled rattlesnakes without any damage. Despite these stories, this use was not widespread the root was more often used in bitter teas as an antidote for various maladies. These included venereal disease, snakebites, impotence, expelling worms, and to induce vomiting.

References:

  • Mohlenbrock, Robert H. Guide to the Vascular Flora of Illinois. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1986.
  • Newcomb, Lawrence. Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. Boston: Little Brown, 1977.
  • Niering, William A. and Nancy C. Olmstead. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Eastern Region. New York: Chanticleer Press, 1990.
  • Phillips, Harry R. Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1985.
  • Reader's Digest. Magic and Medicine of Plants. Pleasantville: Reader's Digest, 1993.
  • Rickett, Harold William. Wild Flowers of the United States: The Northeastern States, vol. 1. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.
  • Swink, Floyd and Gerould Wilhelm. Plants of the Chicago Region. Lisle: Morton Arboretum, 1994.
  • Voigt, John W. and Robert H. Mohlenbrock. Prairie Plants of Illinois. Illinois: Department of Conservation.
  • Walters, Dirk R. and David J. Keil. Vascular Plant Taxonomy, Third Edition. Dubuque: Kendall / Hunt, 1977.


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