The Wild Gardener

Eryngium yuccifolium, known as rattlesnake master or button snakeroot, is an unusual and interesting flowering plant that’s native to the Southeast. Its range runs from the northern border of Florida west to Texas and up to Pennsylvania (USDA zones 5 to 10). Other common names include yucca leaf and snake button.

The genus name is taken from the Greek word “eruggion,” an ancient name of one Old World species. The species name denotes the leaves’ resemblance to those of the yucca plant.

I first came across this plant a few years ago while visiting the Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight, which displays a wide variety of exotic plants, shrubs and trees from around the world. There, amid a group planting of various wildflowers that require good drainage and are noted for their unusual foliage or interesting flowers, stood a 4-foot tall, blooming Eryngium yuccifolium. After taking care to praise both the garden and English history, the botanist in charge revealed that more than a third of the most fascinating plants in the Ventnor collections had come from the United States — a remarkable admission from any English gardener.

This unusual plant is one of a handful of natives that grow at Shuffletown Prairie, a remnant of the Piedmont prairies that once existed along the Catawba River in central North Carolina. There, in the company of the federally endangered Schweinitz’s sunflower, we find a colony of rattlesnake master.

In an area that’s warmer than Asheville, this wildflower is in leaf all year, blooming from midsummer to early fall. The hermaphroditic flowers (having both male and female organs) are pollinated by bees, flies and beetles. The plant is self-fertile.

Although rattlesnake master prefers a light, sandy soil or a well-drained soil that’s rich in humus, it will survive in poor soil as long as it’s well-drained. And though the plant prefers acid soil, it will make do with an alkaline soil, too. Similarly, rattlesnake master will adapt to partial shade, though it prefers full sun. The plant resents being disturbed, however, so when planting it, be sure to choose a spot where it can remain untouched for a few years.

On stems up to 4 feet tall, the spiky, yuccalike foliage surrounds 3-foot-high stems of white, prickly, rounded heads made up of very small, off-white, individual flowers.

A tea made from the roots was once used to treat snakebite; other medicinal applications have ranged from respiratory problems to social diseases.

Propagation is by seed or by root division in early spring; when dividing them up, keep disturbance to a minimum.

[Peter Loewer, aka The Wild Gardener, is a regular contributor to Xpress.]

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