It was not until the 1920s that it was recognized that cattle that grazed on white snakeroot caused humans to die if they drank the cow’s milk.
White snakeroot grows up to 4 feet and produces tiny clusters of white flowers that look a bit like Queen Anne’s Lace. This plant still grows wild in the south and also across eastern North America. It contains the toxic agent tremetal, which is poisonous even when the plant has dried, so it can contaminate hay as well. If cattle eat the plant, the poison can be ingested by humans or animals if they drink the milk or eat the butter, cream, and meat. Cattle and horses are at risk and will die if they graze in areas where it grows.
The botanical name for white snakeroot is Eupatorium rugosum, and it is related to Eupatorium purpureum, which we know as Joe Pye Weed. Dr Anna Bixby in Illinois led an effort to eradicate snakeroot and nearly did in her state in 1834, but the authorities did nothing to help her. In addition, in 1867, a farmer named William Jerry, also in Illinois, tried to draw attention to the problem.
Milk sickness, caused by the snakeroot, was the reason why Abraham Lincoln’s mother died in 1818 in Little Pidgeon Creek, Indiana, at the age of 34. The 9-year-old son that she left, helped her husband make her coffin. The young Abraham carved the pegs for his mother’s casket by hand.
This is Moya Andrews, and today we focused on white snakeroot.