White snakeroot, or Eupatorium rugosum is a powerful forest poison but also a healing plant if used correctly. White snakeroot is in the aster family like much of the plants in the Ozark materia medica.
It can grow up to 4 feet tall with branching stems on the top. The leaves tend to be about 6 inches long, opposite, long-stalked, somewhat heart-shaped, with large teeth along the margins. The leaf veins are conspicuous giving the leaf a crinkled appearance. The flower heads are arranged in branching, flat-topped clusters 2″-3″ across. Each flower head has small white flowers with extended styles that give them a tufted look. White snakeroot is commonly found in moist or rocky woods, bases of bluffs, woodland borders, and disturbed areas. It blooms July-October.
Other names for the plant include “Milk-Fever Plant” or “Fall Poison”. It has been linked to the “milk sickness” of early settlers. The cows would eat the white snakeroot and it would poison their milk. The settlers would then drink the milk and develop a sever sickness that most often ended in death. Abraham Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln died from milk sickness in 1818.
White snakeroot also gets its name from a traditional use of the plant in helping to cure snakebites. It’s said that a poultice of the root can help draw out the venom from the wound, although I’ve never seen this demonstrated with any success.
Certain Native American groups have traditionally used the root to help treat diarrhea, painful urination, fevers, and kidney stones. Caution should always be taken with all parts of this plant as the active chemical compound, eupatorin, is poisonous in high doses. There has been research on eupatorin as a possible anticancer compound.
In Cajun and Creole materia medica the white snakeroot plants is often called “têtes de vieille femmes” or “têtes femmes blancs” (“old woman heads” and “white woman heads”) because of the white tufted appearance of the flower. Use of the plant is mostly discouraged because of its poisonous nature, but there are still some remedies using the plant. Here are a couple(translation from Creole is my own):
Take some tèt dé fonm blan and figwort, and then take some bark of the sweet hawthorn . You boil all that together. Add some salt. Drink three cups a day.
For a fever
Take nine tèt dé fonm blan and five pieces of blackjack vine as wide as a thumb and half as long. Boil all that together. You take that three times a day after eating.
For more information:
“Ozark Wildflowers” Don Kurz
“Flore Louisiane” Walter C. Holmes
Information Sheet from the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden
USDA Plant Profile