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Ground Cover

Rattlesnake Master Care: Grow Eryngium Yuccifolium


9 min read

Eryngium yuccifolium is a distinctive plant commonly known as button snake-root or rattlesnake master. It’s an evergreen perennial forb native to the south eastern United States. Part of the tallgrass prairies, the plants occur in rocky woods, glades, and prairies. They mostly grow as native plants in certain regions of North America, Texas, Florida, Minnesota and Ohio.

The rattlesnake master is hermaphrodite and produces greenish-white flowers from July to September. However, when not flowering, the plants form a rosette of sword-shaped, fibrous leaves that resemble those of yucca, hence the name.

Eryngium yuccifolium can’t grow in anything less than full sun and extremely fertile soil. Here are some quick facts about the rattlesnake master.

Quick Care Guide

Eryngium yuccifolium flower
Close-up of rattlesnake master. Source: Mary Keim
Common Names Rattlesnake Master, Button Eryngo, Button Snakeroot, Beargrass, Bear’s Grass
Scientific NameEryngium yuccifolium
FamilyThe carrot family, Apiaceae
Height & Spread2-5′ tall and 2′ wide
LightFull sun
SoilMoist, well-draining
WaterMedium
Pests & DiseasesPest resistant and are unpalatable to deer and other herbivores

All About Rattlesnake Master

This perennial plant has the common name rattlesnake master because of the specific epithet that some Native Americans used to believe the root was a medicine to treat rattlesnake bites. The root system contains a central taproot that is surrounded by fleshy, fibrous roots.

The parallel veined leaves of Eryngium yuccifolium are narrow, long, and stiff with sharp tips, 5-39″ inches (15-100cm) long, and resemble that of a yucca plant from the lily family. The greenish-white flowers are stemless, dainty, and tightly packed into globular-shaped flower heads that resemble thistles. The flower heads have white stamens and further extend into white, pointed bracts. They bloom in small groups of tiny flowers with 5 white petals from early to late summer.

Beneath each white flower of rattlesnake master is a green, spiny bract, and underneath the flower clusters are tiny rosettes of a few smaller leaves in the form of spiky bracts, like a yucca plant. Within each of the smaller parts of the golf ball like flower are light brown anthers which protrude out from the flower’s circumference. Rattlesnake master belongs to the family of Apiaceae, or the carrot family, which is known for its finely cut foliage that’s ideal for prairie restorations for gardens and landscapes.

With thick rosettes in branched clusters, and dense, spiny flowers, and parallel veins, this evergreen perennial prefers dry, sandy soils, clay soil, and well-drained soils and is native to several regions in the United States. These are relatively large plants that can grow up to 2-5 feet tall (60-152 cm) and self-seeds. It doesn’t tolerate disturbances well, but is a staple of prairie restorations due to how quickly it establishes itself.

Rattlesnake master is one of the most popular varieties of the Apiaceae or carrot family. The second most common variety is called Eryngium synchaetum. However, the latter has much narrower leaves and is native to the moist pine savannas of the coastal regions of North Carolina all the way to Florida. It also produces thick clusters of bristles down the leaf margins. Unlike rattlesnake master, this variety grows well in extremely moist conditions.

Rattlesnake Master Care

A gorgeous spread of Eryngium yuccifolium.
A gorgeous spread of Eryngium yuccifolium. Source: J Van Cise

All in all, rattlesnake master native plants are low-maintenance and problem-free. Here’s everything you need to know about their care and maintenance.

Light & Temperature

Eryngium yuccifolium can’t survive in anything less than full sun. Plant it in a full sun area, and avoid planting in shade, as this will stunt its growth. It can survive in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9. Make sure to keep them in a well-lit spot in your garden.

Rattlesnake master handles very high temperatures easily as a drought-tolerant plant. When it comes to winter temperatures, fear not! Especially in its wide native range, it dies back in winter to return again in spring.

Water & Humidity

Eryngium yuccifolium plants contain a large deep taproot that helps the plant survive during dry, hot months. Their watering needs are dry to medium as they can’t tolerate soils with standing water. Watering is necessary once a week when the plants are young and once or twice a month once they are established. If you water too often, the roots could rot. Most of the time, they don’t need additional water in their native range.

Soil

Rattlesnake master thrives well in dry to medium, well-drained soils. However, it prefers dryish, sandy soil and tends to sprawl when grown in overly fertile soil. It’s tolerant of clay soil, shallow rocky soil, loamy soil, and dry soil. The ideal pH is slightly acidic to slightly alkaline. Most garden soils and compost-heavy soil types are too nutrient-rich for this plant.

Fertilizer for Rattlesnake Master?

Rattlesnake master plants don’t require heavy fertilizers as the presence of nitrogen can encourage weed competition. Therefore, only fertilize this native plant if the soil indicates a severe deficiency. In most cases, fertilizer will cause issues with Eryngium yuccifolium.

Transplanting Rattlesnake Master

Since these plants have tap roots, they transplant poorly. Therefore, once established, it’s best to left undisturbed in prairies, or direct sow them to avoid the need to transplant at all. You can also allow the flower spikes with their tiny flowers that have 5 white petals to release seeds for self-sowing – a natural part of the rattlesnake master life cycle.

Rattlesnake Master Propagation

If you want to grow more Eryngium yuccifolium plants for your garden, then the rattlesnake master can be easily propagated through by division. Simply divide the mature plants in fall or spring. Place the division in separate 4″ inch containers filled with potting mix and keep in a shaded area.

Cover them with plastic bags to maintain humidity levels. Once new growth appears, remove the plastic, and carefully transplant them to permanent, well-lit locations in the garden.

If you’re going to sow seeds in spring, provide the rattlesnake master seeds with simulated cold stratification. Keep the seeds in a plastic bag with some sand in the refrigerator for 2 months before planting. If you’re sowing in fall, broadcast them in your desired area and wait for them to germinate in spring.

Pruning

The plant can sprawl quickly in rich, fertile soil, which provides an interesting landscape for winters. Prune them once the flowering season is over. Simply cut back the stems of the white flowers or leave them as seed-heads that look extremely attractive during the colder months. The entire plant is habitat for overwintering insects. Therefore, there really isn’t a need to prune.

Troubleshooting

Button snake-root is generally problem-free and is ideal for prairie restorations, ground cover gardens, beds, and borders. Let’s have a quick look at some growing problems.

Growing Problems

Rattlesnake master plant can’t tolerate overly moist soil. It quickly develops root rot. For this reason, keep the hydration minimal. Make sure watering only takes place in the morning so the soil can dry completely during the day.

Although the plant can tolerate high winds, it is vulnerable to lodging, where stems bend over and mat on the ground. If you’re planting it in coastal regions where conditions can be harsh, keep it in a well-protected spot.

Pests

The rosette of blue-green leaves and flowers is resistant to pests and unpalatable to deer and rabbits. They are, however, sometimes consumed by voles. Unfortunately, there’s not a viable vole treatment out there, so monitor your plant if you know voles live in your yard.

While some sources may indicate the rattlesnake master borer moth (Papaipema eryngii) is a problem, these claims are likely overblown. The Papaipema eryngii moth is a specialist consumer and its only food source is rattlesnake master. Do not try to keep them from nesting in your plant. Both the plant and the moth are experiencing decline, and hosting them in your garden will help them immensely.

Diseases

Eryngium yuccifolium isn’t prone to disease problems, but is sometimes susceptible to root rot and powdery mildew. As mentioned previously, limit watering if the blue-green leaves start to brown. If left untreated, root rot can kill the entire plant. Inspect the plant carefully and cut the damaged area to save the healthy roots and stems.

For powdery mildew, avoid overhead watering as it contributes to humidity. Prune them as soon as you spot over-crowding to encourage air circulation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is rattlesnake master plant traditionally used for?

A: The shoots and roots of the plant can be cooked and eaten. They’re also used to protect against rattlesnake venom and illnesses like vomiting, fever, and cough. Native Americans have a long history of cultivating and caring for this plant for medicinal reasons. Consult an expert if you’d like to use the plant for medicine.

Q: Where should I keep rattlesnake master plant in my garden?

A: Plant this striking plant in full sunlight, preferably south-facing or east-facing. Use this as the basis of your chosen location, and then include the tenet of adding architectural interest to your garden.

Q: Does the rattlesnake master self-pollinate?

A: Yes, a single plant contains both the female and male organs and self-pollinates.

Q: What is rattlesnake master good for?

A: Today, it’s an excellent host plant for beneficial insects, including numerous pollinators and it’s more important than most members of prairie forb categories.

Q: Is rattlesnake master invasive?

A: It is not invasive. In fact, it’s threatened.

Q: Why is it called rattlesnake master?

A: Native Americans believed the root could be made into a treatment for rattlesnake venom.

Q: Does rattlesnake master spread?

A: Part of the reason its threatened is that it doesn’t readily seed as well as competing species. So, while it will spread over the course of a few years, it isn’t aggressive.

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