Metro-East Living

Watch out for white snakeroot

Gardening columnist Charlie Giedeman identified this plant as white snakeroot, a poisonous weed that grows in the Midwest.
Gardening columnist Charlie Giedeman identified this plant as white snakeroot, a poisonous weed that grows in the Midwest. News-Democrat

Q: Enclosed is a weed that has been growing in my vegetable garden for the past three years. I have used Roundup, placed plastic over the garden soil, and done the usual pulling out the weed. I cannot eliminate it from the garden. It keeps replenishing itself several times a year and over winters. I suspect it may have come in with the compost I obtained from a local source because it remains localized in the garden area. I would appreciate any suggestions or advice on how to get rid of the plant.

L.P, of Belleville

A: Your weed is commonly known as white snakeroot (Eupatorium regosum). This weed has a long history in the Midwest, especially in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. It usually grows in wooded areas, but also can be found in pastures and wasteland. This plant produces a cumulative poison that causes diseases known as “trembles” in cattle and horses. Dairy products from animals that have eaten the plant are poisonous to man, causing milk sickness.

This weed was one of the serious scourges of the early pioneers. It actually changed the history of the United States because Abe Lincoln’s mother died from the milk disease shortly after the family moved from Kentucky to Indiana. With so much white snakeroot growing near them, they moved to Illinois.

Abe’s father remarried and Abe’s new stepmother taught him the love of reading and helped later with his political career. (A midwife actually found the cause of poisoning and named the disease and also the toxin — Tremetol).

I want to stress to you that the sap and leaves of the white snakeroot plant are very poisonous. Please remember this when you are pulling this weed. Try to identify the small seedlings and destroy them because this will be easier to do than when the plants get to the 2-foot size.

The leaves and stems have a very waxy coating. When you spray with Roundup, most of the spray just rolls off the plant. You need to add a tablespoon of liquid dishwater detergent to the spray to strip off a lot of the wax so that the pesticide can make contact with the leaf tissue.

Another problem is that this plant produces a large number of small black angular seeds (about one-eighth inch in size) with small tufts of white hair to be carried by the wind. Whenever you see the plant in flower, cut off the flowers before seeds form.

Q: I have several Rose of Sharon bushes where the buds just disappear before they open. All that is left is a brown woody spot where they were attached. Sometimes, the buds are on the ground; sometimes, they are just gone. I have noticed the same thing on my tropical hibiscus. Not only the buds but whole leaves mysteriously fall off, leaving a stem with a brown end.

I have tried Sevin on both, but it’s not working. Any ideas what could be causing this?

C.K. of Belleville

A: With the whole flower bud and leaves missing, it is not an insect. Especially when you find flowers and buds on the ground. You have squirrels feeding on these two plants. They have acquired a taste for flowers and buds. Sevin controls insects and mites, not these animals.

Another clue is that buds, leaves and flowers are found on the ground. When the squirrels get spooked, they drop everything and run.

You can spray the plants with one tablespoon of liquid detergent mixed with one-half bottle of hot sauce. Or try sprinkling white cayenne powder on the ends of the plant where the animals like to feed.

Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Maureen Houston, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to mhouston@bnd.com.

Do it now:

Trees, except oaks and birches, can be planted now. Oaks and birches transplant better in spring.

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