by Arlene and Larry Dunn, August 3, 2020
spiky silver orb
battle mace of the prairie
Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is the subject of the haiku above, the featured photo on this post, and Larry’s homework for a 2-session online course we are taking in Prairie Ethnobotany, from The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, 25 miles west of Downtown Chicago.
We’ve had a long affiliation with The Morton Arboretum, going back 30 years. It was an essential resource for us when we were developing the landscape, and later, our landscape plant nursery, at Acorn Ridge Gardens, our homestead in rural LaPorte County, IN. We attended many courses and seminars on trees and tree care, and Arlene earned a certificate in Woody Plant Propagation, studying with Pete Linser, Manager of Plant Production. Many plants in our Indiana garden were propagated from scion wood or seeds gathered at Morton as a part of those classes, and we regularly worked the sales tents at Morton’s annual Arbor Day Plant Sale. Kris Bachtell, Vice President of Collections and Facilities, was particularity helpful to us when we were starting the nursery, and was the featured speaker at one of our twice-yearly garden festivals.
Ethnobotany, for the uninitiated, is “the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses,” according to the Oxford dictionary. Our focus in this class is on the plants of the American Tallgrass Prairie and the practical and ceremonial uses of those plants by the indigenous peoples of the prairie and early European settlers. Cindy Crosby, steward of the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum and a noted author and lecturer on the Tallgrass Prairie and nature conservation, is teaching the class. If you are interested in the prairie ecosystem and its plants, you should follow her Tuesdays in the Tallgrass blog.
The North American Tallgrass Prairie once covered a vast swath of land − about 170 million acres − from what is now Manitoba in the north, to what is now the Texas gulf coast in the south. The prairie ecosystem contained a rich tapestry of more than 500 species of deep-rooted grasses and forbs (broad-leafed flowering plants) in a symbiotic self-sustaining relationship. The relentless westward push of European settlers devastated the prairie, greatly aided by John Deere’s plow. Today, only around 1% of the Tallgrass Prairie remains.
Our own interest in the Tallgrass Prairie was piqued by one of our gardening mentors, Bill Brincka. Bill was a professor of three-dimensional art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most masterful gardeners we ever met, and a keen-eyed naturalist who studied with May Watts at The Morton Arboretum from the time he was a teenager. The first time Bill visited our garden and nursery, he literally jumped out of the car on arrival, shouting “Do you know you have a prairie remnant right across your street?” In fact, we did not realize it, but indeed there were several acres of undisturbed prairie right there, in all its magnificence, lying between 2 disused railroad tracks. It was bursting with a vast array of prairie grasses and forbs, familiar and unfamiliar − Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Switchgrass, Black-eyed Susan, Cone Flower, Iron Weed, Boneset, Joe Pye Weed, Blazing Star, and Rattlesnake Master (one of out favorites, for its distinctive features). Soon, we added a steadily growing array of prairie native plants to our gardens and to our nursery product line. And we restored an acre of prairie at the back of our yard, on the crest of rise about 100 yards behind our house.
In 2013, various maladies of advancing age convinced us that living in isolation in rural Indiana, with several acres of gardens to tend, was no longer sustainable. So we up and moved to a retirement community in Oberlin, OH. In 2015, we started developing a “pond bank prairie garden” adjacent to our cottage. You can see in that prairie map, above, that small pockets of Tallgrass Prairie were found in Ohio, including near Oberlin, and many prairie plants can be found growing wild here. So it seemed a natural fit. The pond bank has been growing in nicely, especially considering we planted it all from seed without a lot of soil preparation, because it’s a fairly narrow, rather steep slope that does not lend itself to getting equipment in there.
We planted some Rattlesnake Master seeds three years ago, hoping for the best. But the last two seasons we saw no sign of it, which is not too surprising. Like many prairie plants, it takes a few years to establish itself, and wouldn’t likely bloom until after a few years of growing. Our patience was rewarded a few weeks ago, when our first stalk of Rattlesnake Master flowers emerged from the thicket of surrounding foliage. And that is why Larry picked Rattlesnake Master for his Prairie Ethnobotany class homework.
Common names: Rattlesnake Master, Button Snakeroot
Scientific name: Eryngium yuccifolium
What the scientific name means: The genus designation Eryngium derives from the ancient Greek and is a somewhat rare case where the name simply means “sea holly,” i.e., this type of plant, and has no other meanings. The species designation yuccifolium means “having Yucca-like foliage,” which is an apt description.
Native range: Native to the American Tallgrass Prairie.
Plant description: Rattlesnake Master is a perennial forb that grows from a corm-like crown into a large rosette of long, narrow, fibrous leaves. It flowers in mid-summer on tall leafless stems bearing many small blossoms aggregated in spiky balls, which are silver-gray in color.
Historical human uses: Rattlesnake Master, as its common name indicates, was used by indigenous North American peoples to ward off the effects of rattlesnake venom when handling rattlesnakes and as a curative for a rattlesnake bite. The sap and roots were also used in various tonics, including as a diuretic, and the fibrous leaves were used for making baskets and footwear.
spiky silver orb
battle mace of the prairie