Tag: White Snakeroot

  1. Wildflowers 101: White Snakeroot and Mountain Gentian

    Wildflowers 101: White Snakeroot and Mountain Gentian Images by Tom Harrington Have you ever heard of “milk sickness”?  What could something like that possibly have to do with wildflowers found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Read on to find out.  The first wildflower we shall examine is white snakeroot. White snakeroot generally grows from one to four Read more...
  2. The Masque of the White Death

    White Death - Milk Sickness

    Imagine you are living in the Great Smoky Mountains in the 1830s and people in your family and in the community that surrounds you are getting sick and dying. It is the early fall of a dry year. Children and adults are complaining of loss of appetite, weakness, vomiting. Your uncle is in a coma. The haggard doctor in the next community cannot identify a cause. And there are no cures. Some farms are quarantined. A black flag or other sign on the fence out front warns neighbours and travellers that the sickness has reached the unfortunate family within.

    Your neighbour’s horse, which suffered from “the trembles,” slowly dies. Families talk of moving back east where they were never afflicted by such a plague. You have relatives in Kentucky who send word that half the people in their town have succumbed.

    But then, in November, people quit getting ill. You learn that many families have lost most of their calves and are worried about possible starvation in the winter ahead. But the terrible affliction has apparently run its course.

    Because of its cryptic nature, milk sickness remained a mystery in the eastern United States for many years. It is caused by a late-summer wildflower that is common in the Great Smokies, white snakeroot. People and livestock tend to avoid the plant, but during drought years, when forage is thin, cattle, horses, sheep, and other livestock will graze it. Many of the livestock get sick and die, but some show no symptoms. Tremetol, the toxin that is passed from the plant to livestock to humans, was not scientifically identified until the early 20th century. Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, is said to have died from milk sickness.


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