Rattlesnake Master

Eryngium yuccifolium

rattlesnake master

Rattlesnake master, photographed at Royal Palm Beach Pines Natural Area, Royal Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, in June 2015.

Rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium. Cool name. Interesting plant in many regards.

Native Americans throughout much of eastern North America used the root of this plant to make an antidote for rattlesnake bites. How effective it was, we can't say, but its use was widespread. Hence the name.

It is a Florida native, found throughout much of the state. But, according to the Institute for Regional Conservation, rattlesnake master is rare in South Florida. It's likely extirpated, or locally extinct, in both Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Its range extends over much of the eastern and central United States, skipping Pennsylvania, New York and New England north of Connecticut. It's found as far west as Minnesota and Texas. In Maryland, however, where it's called tall rattlesnake master, it's classified as endangered, possibly extinct. Both Ohio and Michigan list it as threatened.

In Florida, it's found mainly in wet pinelands and depression marshes, but it also inhabits the grasslands of the Great Plains of the Midwest. It prefers sandy soils and does best in full sun. It can be a tall — some reports say it can hit five, even six feet, but the plants that we've are more in the two- or three-foot range. The leaves are spiny, long, sword-like in shape, resembling a yucca plant — yuccifolium.

But the most distinguishing feature of rattlesnake master is its unusual flower heads. It blooms in summer, sending out a spike from which the heads grow on a series of multibranched stems. The flowers individually are small, and a greenish white. Collectively, they create a striking look.

As we said above, that rattlesnake master was commonly used among various Native American tribes as a snake bite antidote. But it's medicinal uses extended well beyond that, as an analgesic, a gynecological aid, a treatment for chest pains, dysentery, bloody noses, venereal disease, bladder problems and as a cure-all. We couldn't find any references to any scientific testing of rattlesnake master that could corroborate its medicinal value.

Another story we read said Native Americans would chew the root, then spit on their hands as a preparation for safely handling rattlesnakes. Thus the name.

It is a host for swallowtail butterflies and a source of nectar for other species.

Believe it or not this is a member of Apiaceae, the carrot family. It has the umbels, or compound flower heads, typical of Apiaceae, just formed differently. Other common names include button eryngo, button snakeroot, beargrass, bear's grass and button rattlesnakemaster.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.