It does not keep rattlesnakes away, but rattlesnake master is a unique accent plant for flower beds. A native of the American prairies, it is well-adapted for growth in arid climates and poor soils. This perennial plant typically blooms in late summer and early fall. The plant can cause skin irritations or allergies, so it should be handled with care.
The name rattlesnake master is derived from a belief, shared by Native Americans and pioneers, that the plant was an antidote for rattlesnake venom. Indian traders recounted tales of Native Americans chewing the root of the plant and then being able to safely handle rattlesnakes. The roots were used as a cure for various other diseases as well, and were often brewed into tea. None of these medicinal properties are supported by modern medicine, however. Native Americans also used the dried flower heads as rattles.
Scientifically, rattlesnake master is a member of the Carrot family. Its scientific name is Eryngium yuccifolium. Another common name for it is button snakeroot.
Rattlesnake master plants grow up to 5 feet (about 1.5 meters) tall. They are single-stemmed plants with narrow, stiff leaves that can be up to 2.5 feet (0.75 meters) long growing near the base of the plant. The stem and leaves are typically bluish to grayish green.
Each plant usually contains several flower heads, accommodated by a branching stem. These balls of tiny white flowers are typically 0.5 to 1-inch (1.25 to 2.5 cm) in diameter. Each flower consists of five petals, several stamens, and a spray of small leaves. They can remain in bloom for as long as two months. After the flowering season, these balls turn brown and produce many seeds. These seed heads are sometimes included in dried flower arrangements.
In the U.S., the natural growth range of rattlesnake master covers an area bounded approximately by Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Minnesota. It likes full sun and can withstand temperatures down to -30°F (-34.4°C). The plants prefer neutral soils, but are not picky about the type, as they can grow in sand, loam, clay, and even gravel soils, as long as there is sufficient drainage. Soil for rattlesnake master should be kept moist or slightly dry.
The caterpillars of a rare moth species, Eryngium yuccifolium or rattlesnake master borer moth, feed on the stems of the plant. Rattlesnake masters also attract many other insects seeking their nectar or pollen. These include bees, butterflies, and beetles.