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White Snakeroot

(credit: Phran Novelli)

(credit: Phran Novelli)

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By Phran Novelli

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - What’s that plant that’s about thigh-high with bright white flowers you see along the side of the road this time of year? It’s White Snakeroot – Ageratina altissima, a member of the Aster family – a native plant once thought to cure snakebites, but in fact, it’s toxic! The foliage is bitter so most animals avoid it, but hungry cattle can graze on it with deadly results, as the toxins pass into their milk and meat, poisoning people who consume it – such a’Milk Sickness’ from Snakeroot is what killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother when he was just a boy.

As one of the last wildflowers to bloom in the fall, it’s pretty enough, feeds a few pollinators, and brightens the partly-shaded areas along fences and under tall shrubs where it likes to grow.

But Snakeroot can get weedy, as the flowers give way to fluffy tufts that blow in the breeze to make new plants nearby, while its roots and rhizomes multiply in place and can be hard to dig out. So if you see Snakeroot right now where you don’t want it, it’s better to get it out sooner than later, and after a good rain it’s usually much easier to remove.