Rattlesnake Master: Not Just for the Pollinators

October 20, 2023 | Blog

With its yucca-like appearance and curious common name, rattlesnake master (Erynigium yuccifolium) is bound to get the attention of native plant enthusiasts. In a native prairie or prairie planting, this easily identifiable plant gets plenty of pollinator attention, too.

Biologist and Pollinator Conservationist Heather Holm details a host of pollinators that flock to rattlesnake master for nectar, pollen, and larvae shelter in her book Pollinators of Native Plants. Red-shouldered pine beetles (Stictoleptura candensis), banded long-horn beetles (Typocerus spp.), yellow-faced bees (Hylaeus spp.), and soldier beetles (Chauliognathus spp.) visit the flowers for nectar, and bumble bees (Bombus spp.) also collect pollen from the plant. Additionally, rattlesnake master is the host plant for the stem-borer moth (Papaipema eryngii), whose larvae bores into the plant’s roots, and in 2020 was reviewed—though ultimately declined—for Federal Listing under the Endangered Species Act. Wasps, however, are the primary visitors to the plant, according to Holm. Paper, mason, great golden digger, mason, and carrot wasps are just some of those that seek out the white flowerheads, each containing about 100 individual, white flowers with five petals and green sepals, as a nectar source. In fall and winter, the plants are recognizable by their dark brown seedheads and foliage.

Beyond the plant’s many benefits to insects, Native Americans also found the plant leaves useful for making cordage products. Perhaps most notable in Missouri was the discovery of shoes made of woven rattlesnake master plant fiber excavated from Arnold Research Cave in Callaway County, Missouri, in the 1950s and dated in the 1990s using the accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) method (Jenna T. Kuttruff, et al. (1998). 7500 Years of Prehistoric Footwear from Arnold Research Cave, Missouri. Science, Vol. 281, www.sciencemag.org). The oldest footwear specimen, a sandal, was dated to be around 8,000 years old and is thought to be the oldest shoe found east of the Rockies. Other purported Native American uses of the plant’s sap and roots were medicinal in nature—for snake bites, hence the common name—and as a diuretic (https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/Eryngium-yuccifolium.shtml).

Therefore, rattlesnake master is an excellent choice for the native plant garden for its unusual appearance, many benefits to ecosystems, and its historical and functional significance. Visit the Grow Native! native plant database to learn more.

Photo of great golden digger wasp feeding on rattlesnake master by Bruce Schuette; photo of the plant at an MPF prairie in the fall by iNaturalist contributor kbildner; and photo of the ancient rattlesnake master shoe courtesy University of Missouri

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