White Snakeroot: A Plant That Can Poison A Cow And Its Milk

Like milk thistle, white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is a member of the daisy family. It’s a relatively unassuming plant, and although it’s delicate in appearance, white snakeroot hides a toxic secret…

Why Is White Snakeroot Dangerous?

The entire white snakeroot plant contains a toxin that can poison grazing animals. Alarmingly, the toxin can move through the food chain, which means livestock can pass the toxin on. So any milk or meat from livestock that has eaten white snakeroot will be contaminated — It was known as ‘milk sickness’.

  • White snakeroot remains poisonous even when dried, so even if a field is left for hay making, that hay could still poison livestock.
  • It was a common problem throughout colonial history, with many European colonizers dying from milk sickness.
  • Farmers and livestock owners would unknowingly let their animals graze in woodland, where white snakeroot populations were high.
  • The plant was officially identified by scientists as being the cause of milk sickness in 1928.
  • Later records emerged that proved the scientist, Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby, was the first to discover the effects of white snakeroot in 1818 — an entire century before. She was thought to have been taught about the plants potency by a Shawnee woman.
An 1800s milk pail in the Concord Museum | Photo by Daderot on Wikimedia Commons

Today poisoning cases are rare, as modern farming and processing methods have all but eliminated the risk. However white snakeroot poisoning cases in livestock still occur.

What Are The Active Compounds in White Snakeroot?

The toxin that causes the poisoning is known as tremetol — a form of toxic alcohol. Its poisoning effects begin quickly, and symptoms show within hours of ingesting it.

What are the Symptoms of White Snakeroot Poisoning?

In animals, symptoms range from trembling, weakness, weight loss, and changes in how the animal stands. Within humans, symptoms usually involve vomiting, nausea, muscle stiffness, constipation, coma, and even death, depending on the dosage. There is no cure or antidote to milk sickness, only attentive treatment.

What is the Medicinal Potential of White Snakeroot?

Snakeroot was once used to treat snake bites, which hints at the common name. Native American tribes would collect the root and create a form of poultice to place on the wound. The root was also used for treating fairly minor confirmations like diarrhea, fevers, and even kidney stones. White snakeroot isn’t considered a popular medicinal herb due to its deadly toxicity, so studies are limited.

Ageratina altissima – White snakeroot- at the Guppy Farm, Skaneateles Conservation Area, Onondaga County, New York | Photo by R. A. Nonenmacher on Wikimedia Commons

Cultural Symbolism of White Snakeroot

During the 1800s the plant was causing a silent epidemic amongst the colonizers settling in areas like Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Native Americans had long been aware of the potential of local plants, and their relationships and uses. European colonizers however lacked local plant knowledge and assumed that normal European farming would fit within this new ecosystem. Sadly thousands succumbed to this lack of knowledge until studies discovered the cause of milk sickness.

Notable White Snakeroot Poisonings

It was believed that the mother of Abraham Lincoln, Nancy Hanks, died in 1818 after suffering from milk sickness.

The funeral sermon of Nancy Hanks Lincoln | Book image from Wikimedia Commons

What Does White Snakeroot Look Like?

Overall white snakeroot is a fairly inconspicuous plant. It bears several similar characteristics to plants like poison hemlock (Conium maculatum – also incredibly toxic), and also to Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) a.k.a wild carrot — each with their neat, showy clusters of white flowers. However, white snakeroot blooms throughout late summer and into the fall, which is slightly later than the lookalikes mentioned above.

The stems that hold the delicate flower umbels are long, with the plant reaching a general height of one and a half meters. Its leaves are toothed and can appear similar to nettle leaves.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) blooming in the Seldom Seen Greenway, Pittsburgh | Photo by Cbaile19 on Wikimedia Commons

Where Does White Snakeroot Grow?

White snakeroot is endemic to the US and is generally found in the eastern and central states. You’ll find it growing in a wide range of habitats, including woods, scrubland, at the bottom of hedges and field edges.

It’s quick to establish and to some, it’s considered a relatively harmless weed, to others, it’s an incredibly harmful hindrance that must be removed.

Is White Snakeroot a Danger Today?

Fortunately not. As soon as white snakeroot was identified, protective measures were set in place and they have been continuously improved over the last century. Pasteurization has no effect on the toxin tremetol, however, because milk production facilities mix milk from multiple farms and cows together, any hint of tremetol is diluted to an insignificant amount that causes no harm. Today milk sickness is incredibly rare — with cases limited to small farms where raw milk may be consumed.

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