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  • Writer's pictureCalyx

Differential Morphology: White Snakeroot & Boneset

Heralded for its effectiveness for influenza, Boneset has become known as one the most historically important herbal allies of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. A relaxant diaphoretic, antiviral, and immune stimulant, it is a specific remedy for the bone-deep ache that accompanies the flu as well as for "ague", a state of alternating chills and feverishness, as occurs in malaria. Like many of the herbs used in modern western herbalism, Boneset was extensively utilized and brought to prominence in the literature through the eclectics and physiomedicalists, however it is a species native to Turtle Island and has been highly valued in Indigenous medicine for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. It is easy for us to casually throw facts like this about, as has been done for centuries. However, gravity of the survival of thousands of settler colonialists amidst the flu epidemics attributed to indigenous people sharing their knowledge of this plant deserves pause and reflection. We've seen the pattern repeat itself in so many subjects: settlers occupying native lands, struggling to thrive, indigenous people imparting knowledge of their lands, settlers taking this knowledge readily, utilizing it and retaining the fragmented pieces of that knowledge we deem most valuable, then erasing all credit of the source of that knowledge.

The name itself, "Boneset," provides another example of this, as it has been the source of debate for years. While some suggest that this name is indicative of its traditional use for healing fractures, others assert that this name indicates its use in "break-bone" fever (dengue fever) and that there is no credibility to the claims that it can actually heal bone. However, we know that it was traditionally used by several indigenous groups for healing bones, and many modern herbalists attests to its ability to do so. Why was this forgotten? I speculate that this is because it rose to fame in colonial culture as a fever remedy, not a fracture remedy, and again, we tend to fragment indigenous knowledge into pieces and the parts we do not value are swept away.

We see this pattern as well its in most common look-alike species, White Snakeroot. White Snakeroot contains tremetol, a toxic substance. Settlers who occupied the land and brought cattle grazing practices with them suffered the consequences; tremetol is best known for having caused the "milk sickness" epidemic in the early 19th century. It infamously was what caused the death of Abraham Lincoln's mother. Decades passed before it was discovered to be caused by drinking milk from cows who had grazed on White Snakeroot. The lesser-discussed part of this tale is that it was knowledge imparted by a native woman that finally put an end to the thousands of deaths that occurred due to tremetol poisoning. The Shawnee woman who imparted this knowledge was never named nor credited, and the woman whom she shared the knowledge with, Dr. Anna Hobbs, was not credited for demonstrating this to the scientific community until after her death. These were not mistakes, but deliberations.

I've been asked why I relentlessly continue to bring up the social and political lessons evident in the ethnobotanical record. The answer is simply because these lessons are everywhere we look, and we continue to repeat them today. There are few places we can look in the record where colonization does not rear its ugly head, and I imagine a great deal of these instances never made it into the record to begin with. The fact that I've been completely unable to find the Unami (Lenape) word for Boneset when it had such profound historical significance in American ethnobotany is a testament to the effects colonization has had on indigenous knowledge.

When we maintain and retain knowledge in a fractured way, we become disjointed from its original context. With herbal medicine, its primary original context is the growing plant. We cannot fully know a remedy until we have met it in flesh. To do this we must learn to recognize the finer details of a plant as we do the features of a friend's face.


Medicinal or Toxic?

Boneset is commonly referred to as "medicinal" while White Snakeroot is "toxic," but in truth they both have medicinal applications as well as some toxic constituents. White Snakeroot has largely fallen out of use as a medicine, though it has been traditionally as fever remedy, as it also has diaphoretic qualities. Boneset is still commonly used today, however it also rests on the toxic spectrum due to its unsaturated (toxic) pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Their toxicity has been the source of much debate, and research has indicated that chemotypic variability among samples and hybridization may play a large part in the presence and quantities of certain PAs.

As with all plants, whether a plant has a toxic effect or a medicinal one is primarily a matter of appropriate dosing and duration. White Snakeroot's appropriate dose and duration is difficult to ascertain since it is has fallen out of use. While Boneset's toxicity continues to be studied and analyzed, traditional used informs that is safe for use in adults when used in moderate doses for short durations.


Ageratina altissima White Snakeroot

Syn. Eupatorium rugosum - this species used to be classified in the Eupatorium genus, which has undergone a lot of reclassification. It's worth noting that altissima means "highest" or "tallest," but of all the plants mentioned here besides B. eupatorioides it has the smallest stature.


Morphology:

  • 1.5-3’ tall

  • Stems glabrous or mostly so

  • Opposite leaves

  • Leaves become smaller as they ascend the stem, larger leaves at the base being broadly cordate (heart shaped), narrowing to broadly lanceolate toward the top (these have the broadest leaves of the plants mentioned here)

  • Margins broadly serrate to crenate

  • Long petioles

  • 3 prominent veins

  • Compound corymb inflorescence, flowerheads ½” across

  • 10-30 Bright white disk florets, small tubular corolla with 5 lobes

Prefers shaded to partially sunny woodland.


Eupatorium serotinum Late Boneset

From the greek serus, meaning "late."


Late Boneset has similar medicinal uses as Common Boneset, however it may contain higher levels of PA's than E. perfoliatum.

Morphology:

  • 3-6’ tall

  • Pubescent stems

  • Glabrous leaves

  • Opposite leaves

  • Leaves lanceolate, usually nearly three times as long as they are wide

  • Coarsely serrate along the whole margin

  • Leaves curl up at the margin (like a taco shell)

  • Leaves tend to hang down

  • 3 prominent veins

  • Compound corymb inflorescence, flowerheads ¼” across

  • 9-14 white disk florets, small tubular corolla with 5 lobes

Prefers sunny areas and the moist soil of ditches, creekbanks, and low-lying meadows.


Many of the Eupatoriums are known to hybridize, and E. serotinum can hybridize with both E. altissimum and E. perfoliatum.


Eupatorium altissimum Tall Boneset

Altissimum here again being the masculine singular of altissima meaning "tallest," but deceptively not taller than E. serotina (Late Boneset). It also blooms around the same time as Late Boneset, which is later than E. perfoliatum (Common Boneset). We can't entirely blame this one on Linnaeus, however, as E. serotina was discovered and named later by Andre Michaux. This is a perfect time to insert my opinion that neither latin binomials nor western common names can supersede indigenous names.


Tall Boneset has similar medicinal uses as Common Boneset.

Morphology:

  • 3-4’ tall

  • Unbranching except for upper flower stems

  • Pubescent stems

  • Pubescent, rough textured leaves

  • Opposite leaves

  • Leaves lanceolate, usually 4-5 times as long as they are wide

  • Margins entire or having small, broadly spaced serration along the top ½-⅓ of the leaf (compare this to the margins of E. serotinum which has deeper, closer serration that goes all the way to the base of the leaf)

  • 3 prominent veins

  • Compound corymb inflorescence, flowerheads ⅛” across

  • 4-11 dull white disk florets, small tubular corolla with 5 lobes

Prefers fulls sun and mesic to dry soils.


Eupatorium perfoliatum Common Boneset

This is the species most well known and widely utilized in herbal medicine and also the easier to differentiate from the others.


Morphology:

  • 2-4’ tall

  • Opposite leaves

  • Light green, lanceolate leaves

  • Pubescent leaves & stems

  • Clearly defined midrib with secondary reticulate venation (conspicuous netted venation)

  • Perfoliate leaf attachment (the leaves have no petiole, and merge together so that it appears as though the central stem pierces through them)

  • Compound corymb inflorescence, flowerheads ⅙” across

  • 10-20 fragrant, dull white disk florets, small tubular corolla with 5 lobes

Prefers partial to full sun with poorly drained, rich, moist soils.


Brickellia eupatorioides False Boneset


Morphology:

  • 1-3.5’ tall

  • Alternative leaves

  • Only 1 prominent vein on the leaf

  • 7-21 small creamy white florets


Prefers full sun and dry soils. Does not tend to form dense stands the way the true Bonesets do.


Differential Characteristics:

Flowers are all very similar; compound corymb inflorescence with several to many white disk florets bearing a small tubular corolla with 5 lobes and protruding styles.

  • Ageratina altissima: Leaves opposite; Larger leaves at the base being broadly cordate, broadly lanceolate toward the top

  • Eupatorium serotinum: Leaves opposite; Leaves glabrous, lanceolate, usually nearly three times as long as they are wide; Coarsely serrate along the whole margin & leaves curl up at the margin; 3 prominent veins

  • Eupatorium altissimum: Leaves opposite; Leaves pubescent, rough textured; Leaves lanceolate, 4-5 times as long as they are wide; Margins entire or having small, broadly spaced serration along the top 1/2-1/3 of the leaf; 3 prominent veins

  • Eupatorium perfoliatum: Leaves opposite; Perfoliate leaf attachment

  • Brickellia eupatorioides: Leaves alternate; Only 1 prominent vein

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