The 2016 North Carolina Wildflower of the Year is not your run-of-the-mill garden flower. Northern rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), also known as button snake-root or button eryngo, is an unusual prairie species native to the eastern and central United States. With a basal clump of leathery strap-like, blueish green leaves and a single upright flowering stalk, this distinctive species more closely resembles a yucca plant than its closest relatives in the carrot family (Apiaceae). Northern rattlesnake-master is a great garden plant for the interesting form and texture provided by its leaves, flower clusters, and seed heads.
In mid- to late-summer, a single stiff stem topped with round, spikey flower clusters rises up two to four feet from the clump of yucca-like leaves. Each one of these round clusters is composed of many small, tightly arranged flowers with white to pale green or blueish petals and pointy bracts, giving the appearance of small, bristly golf balls. The flowers have a slight honey-like scent and attract a steady abundance of incredibly diverse pollinators including native bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles. Upon ripening in the fall, the seed heads look nearly identical to the flower clusters except they are brown in color. Both the flowers and persistent seed heads can be interesting additions to cut flower arrangements, and the tough leaves and flowers are fairly deer and rabbit resistant.
Northern rattlesnake-master has a long and interesting history of human use. Perhaps the earliest known use of this species dates back 8,000 years, when prehistoric North Americans used the fiber from its thick leaves to make shoes and sandals. The common name of this species comes from early 18th century accounts of Native Americans applying a root preparation to their hands and arms to protect them while handling rattlesnakes and also brewing a root tea to use as rattlesnake antivenin.
Northern rattlesnake-master occurs throughout the state of North Carolina along sandy roadsides, prairies, and open woods, and prefers open, sunny sites with dry to average, well-drained soil. It will become spindly in the shade and will decline rapidly if planted in poorly drained soils. Given the right conditions, this species will produce a sturdy taproot and become a tough, long-lived drought-resistant perennial. Use northern rattlesnake-master as an accent plant or dramatic focal point in a sunny perennial bed with butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), and asters (Symphyotrichum spp.).
General information about the N.C. Wildflower of the Year program and how to order seeds.
The illustration of Northern Rattlesnake-master above was created by Dot Wilbur-Brooks. The NC Botanical Garderns has printed this design on T-shirts, available for purchase in our Garden Shop.