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Species Spotlight: Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

Rattlesnake Master flower heads

Interesting facts:

  • The genus name, Eryngium, comes from an ancient Greek name for a plant that grew in Greece with a similar appearance (probably Eryngium campestre) and is a reference to the prickly or spiny nature of plants in this genus.

  • The common name, Rattlesnake Master, is a related to the erroneous belief of pioneers that the roots could be used as an effective antidote for rattlesnake bite.

  • Rattlesnake Master is a member of the parsley family (Apiaceae), which includes carrots, celery, and parsnips.

  • Rattlesnake Master is a consistent indicator species of relic prairie sites.

  • Rattlesnake Master is one of relatively few dicotyledonous plants that has parallel-veined leaves.

Native Environment/Plant Information:

Rattlesnake Master is a clump-forming, herbaceous perennial of the Apiaceae (parsley/carrot) family. The plant can reach a mature height of up to 6 feet but is more often 2-4 feet tall and has a bluish or greyish-green appearance. Its root system consists of a central taproot, similar to other members of the carrot family. The taproot is topped with a basal rosette of leaves. The leaves are long and narrow, similar to corn and tulips, and can be up to 2.5 feet long and 2.5” wide. The leaves have spiny teeth, and resemble those of the yucca plant, resulting in its specific name “yuccifolium”. Smooth, stiff flower stems typically rise to 3-4' (less frequently to 5-6') tall from the centers of the rosettes. These stems are unbranched except near the inflorescence, giving it the appearance of a pitch fork. The flower stalk terminates in eight to ten 1” diameter globular flower heads packed with tiny, stemless, greenish-white flowers. The flowers have a sweet, honey-like smell and attract pollinators. Flowers bloom from June to August and turn from a green white to a blue color at maturity. Each pollinated flower produces two winged ¼”-long brown seeds (schizocarps).

Rattlesnake Master is a common tallgrass prairie plant and prefers full sun. It is tolerant of drought conditions and can grow in a wide range of soil textures. It is most commonly found in moist to slightly-dry black soil prairies, clay prairies, sand prairies, thickets, typical savannas, sandy savannas, and limestone glades.

Cultural Information:

Rattlesnake Master is easiest to grow in sunny locations with poor, dry, sandy or rocky soils. Rattlesnake master transplants poorly so it is best left undisturbed once established. Shady locations or rich soils make the Rattlesnake Master “open up” and sprawl, resulting in spindly plants and flower stems that may topple while in bloom. It does not do well in standing water but tolerates wet soils and drought well.

Rattlesnake Master will readily self-seed in optimum growing conditions. Reducing risk of its flower stalk’s tendency to topple can be achieved by growing it on dry soils and/or staking. Moles and voles feed on the crowns, especially in winter. Rattlesnake Master is fire tolerant; periodic prescribed burning aids seedling establishment.

Since Rattlesnake Master is an attractive plant because of its leaf texture, color and flower heads. Rattlesnake Master benefits from competition and performs well with garden species like Blazing Star (Liatris sp.) and Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). It works well in the middle of perennial borders or planted in small groups in open woodlands, naturalized areas, and pollinator gardens. It can also be used for Butterfly Gardens, Drought Tolerant Gardens, Native Gardens, Nighttime Gardens, Pollinator Gardens, Winter Gardens, as an accent, in borders, and as a specimen plant. Because it is tolerant of wet soils, Rattlesnake Master is ideal for a water garden, or pond edge planting. The stiff spines along the leaf margins add architectural interest but can be unpleasant planted near a walkway.

The flowers are attractive fresh or dried and make an interesting addition to a cutting garden. Native Americans used Rattlesnake Master for medicinal purposes and as a source of fiber for woven materials<5>. The Cherokee prepared a tea to prevent whooping cough and soaked the leaves to make an infusion to treat toothaches<5>. The Creek treated nerve pain and kidney troubles with a root infusion<5>. The Natchez used a parched leaf infusion to treat dysentery, and nosebleeds were treated by chewing stem and leaves<5>.

Wildlife uses:

Rattlesnake Master are attractive to butterflies and other insect pollinators. The flowering heads attract many kinds of insects, including long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, skippers, moths, beetles, and plant bugs. Insects usually seek nectar, although some bees collect pollen for their brood nests. The flowers also attract Monarchs and Skippers. Rattlesnake Master is a larval host of the rare Rattlesnake Master Borer Moth (Papaipema eryngii) that bore into the stems and feed on the pith.

Mammals tend to avoid Rattlesnake Master due to the coarse foliage and prickly flower balls of flowers. They occasionally nibble off the ends of the leaves.

Rattlesnake Master flower heads

Useful Links and References:

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