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Rattlesnake Master; A Plant With A Past

Rattlesnake master is the common name for Eryngium yuccifolium Michaux, a member of the Apiaceae family – although in growth habit it is unlike any of other members of the family. Rattlesnake master has several distinctive features – most notably the blade like shape of the leaves with parallel veins (also unusual in dicots) and fine stiff teeth along the leaf margin. Rattlesnake master has a deep history in the Midsouth and Southeast as a key textile fiber source. First identified in archaeological textiles by the late Marie Standifer, rattlesnake master was a critical plant fiber sources for Indigenous peoples for at least 7500 years. In fact some of the oldest shoes from Eastern North America were woven using Eryngium yuccifolium leaves. Because of the often fragmentary nature of these ancient fabric artifacts, we can’t be certain of the full range of items produced – but bags and shoes are two well known uses. The Ozark Plateau perishable assemblage also demonstrates that it was used to haft composite tools as well. In researching archaeological textiles and basketry from the Ozark Plateau, I found that Eryngium yuccifolium leaves make up almost 70% of fiber use in Archaic and Woodland period textiles and nearly 85% of “ephemeral” use of fiber.  Ephemeral artifacts include bits of loose cordage, but also whole leaves tied in knots – used to bind something, perhaps other plants, or game – a testament to the plants’ immediacy in the lives of ancient peoples. But ethnohistoric accounts make almost no mention of this incredibly important fiber source. It is not clear why – certainly other fiber sources are mentioned – dogbane, mulberry and others. Only a single reference in early European accounts may be a description of the use of rattlesnake master for fiber – Rangel’s account of the De Soto expeditions’ invasion of the Southeast. Rangel uses the term “abrotea” to describe a plant processed (“pounded”) until it produced a fiber like flax. Different translations of this term have included “nettle,” “hemp” and “daffodil” but as Charles Hudson notes in Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun, this description likely refers to Eryngium yuccifolium. The translation as “daffodil” is the closest in growth habit, if not taxonomy, to a plant native to south central Europe known as “abrotea” today – Asphodelus sp. – also notable for it long blade like leaves and central inflorescence stalk. It is possible – given the similarities in growth habit – that what the Spanish were observing  was in fact the shredding of the long blade-like leaves of Eryngium yuccifolium for the vascular bundle fibers. A process that was in use by at least 1800 years ago by the Indigenous peoples of the Mid-South and Southeast for the production of bags and cloth. Ethnographic information about Indigenous peoples’ use of the plant no longer reflect its many thousand-year history as a textile fiber but does reflect its continued importance to the cultures of the Southeast as a medicinal/ritual plant.

Cultivating Eryngium I have been cultivating Eryngium yuccifolium for nearly two decades now, both casually as beautiful addition to wildflower gardens, but also as source of fiber for experimental research and for public outreach programs about Indigenous fiber use and fabric production. While it is commonly described as prairie plant, rattlesnake master grows well in a wide variety of settings provided it receives enough sun. It often takes easily to being cultivated and can withstand some extreme treatment and conditions from leaf harvest to drought to prolonged flooding. Although drought tolerant –a feature that makes it a superb native landscaping plant – I have also seen it persist in standing water for weeks and heavily saturated soils for months. It starts easily from seed sown in the late fall and seedlings can be readily identified by the appearance of the first true leaf – which unlike most dicots – has the appearance of a robust grass or yucca leaf (hence “yuccifolium”). Even at this stage, the tiny first true leaf will have the distinctive teeth along the leaf margin, easily setting it apart from either grass or yucca. Rattlesnake master is sometimes mistakenly described as reproducing solely from seed and having a deep central taproot that prohibits easy transplanting. While it does reproduce easily from seed – with a remarkably high germination rate – mature rattlesnake master plants also clumps from a thick rhizome, slowly but surely spreading outward every year. For the first few years each individual plant develops a vertical rhizome. During this time the plant may not even flower, though in gardens they will tend to flower their second year. After flowering, the flower stalk dies back in late fall, and the plant grows several subterranean buds at the base it in a corm-like fashion. Each of these in turn will develop fleshy roots, vertical rhizomes – and after flowering – new buds as well.  Because of this corm-like clumping behavior, a single plant can – over the course of years – produce a massive dense stand of plants. Since each new bud develops its own fleshy roots, these can be carefully divided and replanted (and is probably advisable to do so in gardens to avoid overcrowding and decline).

Additional Resources SERNEC – Eryngium yuccifolium Gordon, Angela and Richard C. Keating. “Light Microscopy and Determination of Eryngium yuccifolium Michaux Leaf Material in Twined Slippers from Salts Cave, Kentucky, Journal of Archaeological Science 28, Issue 1 (2001): 55-60, Horton, Elizabeth T. “Investigation of Perishable Materials Associated with Fawn Hoof, a Desiccated Burial in Short Cave, Kentucky.” Current Research in Kentucky Archaeology 8 (2007):91-108. Koldehoff, Brad, Jenna Tedrick Kuttruff, Brian M. Butler, and Marie S. Standifer. “The Kerr Canyon Textile and the Importance of Packrats (Neotoma Floridana) in the Eastern Woodlands.” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 33, no. 2 (2008): 183-95. Standifer Marie S., Jenna T. Kuttruff, and Shirley C. Tucker. The uses of Eryngium yuccifolium by Native American people. In From Foragers to Farmers: Papers in Honour of Gordon C. Hillman, edited by Ehud Weiss, (2012): 179-189. Oxford Books, Oxford.

Hudson, Charles. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms. (1998) University of Georgia Press

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