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What Time is it in Nature: Rattlesnake Master

June 28, 2014

The Nature Neighborhood Garden at Prairie Ridge is currently awash in colorful blooms!  Some of the flowers are showy and others are subtle, but few flowers are as interesting as those found on Rattlesnake Master, Eryngium yuccafolium.

Rattlesnake master

Rattlesnake Master is a perennial in the carrot family of plants, Apiaceae, though it’s quite unlike its relatives.  The plants grow 2-5 feet tall and sport a single stout stem emerging from a deep taproot.  The main stem branches only near the top of the plant.  The stiff leaves are found predominantly at the base of the main stem and grow up to 3 feet long.  They are similar in appearance to yucca leaves, so similar that the species name of the plant, yuccafolium, refers to this characteristic.  A few smaller leaves may grow near the top of the plant where the stem branches, but they are much shorter and quite spiky looking.

Rattlesnake Master blooms from mid- to late summer.  Most plants in the carrot family have broad, airy clusters of small flowers called umbels at the tips of the stems.  Rattlesnake Master does things a little differently and lumps its flowers into dense, spiky balls at the tips of the branches off the main stem:

Rattlesnake master flowers

Each thistle-like cluster of flowers is about an inch across and is made up of many greenish-white flowers, each with 5 white petals surrounded by spiny, pointed bracts.  The bracts surrounding the flowers give the flower clusters their stiff, spiky feel and remain attached to the stem long after the petals have fallen from the plant and the foliage withers and turns brown during winter.

Rattlesnake Master is a common wildflower species found in prairies throughout the eastern US.  It grows well in sunny areas in a wide variety of soil types, though it is rarely weedy. These characteristics combined with the deep taproot the plants develop make them excellent candidates for prairie restorations and roadside plantings.  Because they are also naturally resistant to most plant diseases and herbivores, including insects, rabbits, and deer, they have become popular landscaping and garden plants as well.

The name Rattlesnake Master comes from the purported past use of the taproot as an antidote against rattlesnake venom.  There is some argument over whether the plant was ever really used as a rattlesnake antidote, but it was certainly used for other medicinal purposes by Native Americans and early American settlers.  Its stiff leaves were also used as a fiber for making shoes worn by some Midwestern Native American tribes.

Rattlesnake Master is a fantastic prairie plant, and an interesting member of our Nature Neighborhood Garden,  It is currently in bloom, which means it is covered with insects sipping nectar from its flowers.  These insects will be the subject of next week’s What Time is it in Nature, but consider a visit to Prairie Ridge to see the Rattlesnake Master.  The showy, bizarre flowers and abundance of nectar feeders make it well worth the trip!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photos by Chris Goforth

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