Fondness for a Flower: Rattlesnake Master

Rattlesnake master photo by Robert Stone
Rattlesnake master photo by Robert Stone

By Alyssa Nyberg

November is the month to give thanks for things we are fond of…for friends, family and of course, for flowers!

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is a favorite flower of the prairies. It doesn’t just have a great name, it also attracts a wide variety of insects and songbirds. Additionally, rattlesnake master is an eye-catching, hardy, perennial landscaping plant. It looks fantastic when the white flowers in in full bloom and remains so even after the flowers have faded and the seed heads have turned a chocolate brown.

Rattlesnake master is in the Apiaceae family, which means that it is related to carrots, celery and parsley. Like them, it has a hollow stem, many small flowers on short stalks that attach at a central point, and substantive roots. The roots were of interest to the Native Americans who used them to treat toothaches, bladder troubles, coughs and snake bites. The Fox Indians, who inhabited the prairie regions of Wisconsin, used the leaves and fruits in their ceremonial rattlesnake song and dance.

This attractive perennial prefers to grow in full sun. Conveniently, it will tolerate a range of soil moisture, from wet to dry soil. In such sunny conditions, it will grow three to five feet tall. At the base of the plant are grey-green, long, 2.5” wide, strap-like leaves with spiny edges. The leaves look very similar to those of a yucca plant.

The flowers of rattlesnake master bloom for a long time period. They begin flowering in July and continue through August in our area. There are more than 100 very small, five-petaled, white flowers on each flower head. Flowerheads can number from ten to forty per stalk; and plants often have multiple stalks. This equals a lot of flowers!  At the base of each flower is a bristly bract which makes the seed head feel prickly when touched.

The long lasting white flowers are loaded with nectar. And because the nectar is located at the base of the shallow flower tubes (rather than at the base of long flower tubes in other plants) it is a favorite of many insects. On a sunny day you can often see a wide variety of beetles, wasps, bumblebees, solitary bees and butterflies such as the monarchs, fritillaries, viceroys, sulphurs and crescents all feeding at the flowers.

But nectar isn’t the only thing about this plant that is attractive to insects. There are actually two insects which are completely dependent upon rattlesnake master for their survival. The larvae of the Eryngium stem-borer moth (Papaipema eryngii) and the Eryngium flower-feeding moth (Coleotechnites eryngiella) feed only on the plant material of rattlesnake master. Flower-feeding moths, which consume the seeds of the plant, are well documented at Kankakee Sands. We are hopeful that the Stem-borer, which is state endangered in Illinois and state extirpated in Indiana, will makes its way back to Kankakee Sands.

Take a walk at Kankakee Sands this winter and enjoy the stately rattlesnake master, standing tall amongst the prairie vegetation. This conservative prairie plant is abundant in our prairie restorations, providing food to the insects and birds of our area. The bristly nature of the flowerhead combined with the spiny nature of the leaves ensures that it won’t be eaten by herbivores, but here for you to see. A plant that waits for you? How easy is that? Yet one more reason to be fond of rattlesnake master!

Alyssa Nyberg has been managing the Kankakee Sands Native Plant Nursery for the past 15 years. Each year she is delights in the beauty of the Rattlesnake master and the many insects which visit it.  

The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.

Comments are closed.