When identifying the white snakeroot, first determine whether the plant is between two and four feet tall. Its stems stand erect and are slender and round, and its branches bear pointed, oval leaves that are between three and five inches long. These leaves are sharply toothed on their margins and have three main veins that are distinct on the undersides. The white snakeroot's roots are shallow, fibrous, and coarse.
This plant is found in wooded pastures of the Midwest, persisting even after the woods are cut and cleared. Though most common in the Midwest, it grows occasionally in the West along woods that border streams. During the late summer months, especially September and October, minute and common-looking white flowers blossom at the top of the stem and ends of the branches of the white snakeroot.
Many mistake two nettle plants for the white snakeroot: the nettle-leaved sage and the nettle-leaved vervain. The nettle-leaved sage can be distinguished from the white snakeroot by its square stems; the nettle-leaved vervain by its lance-shaped leaves.
The white snakeroot is toxic. Toxicity from this plant is cumulative, meaning that animals may die from consuming small amounts over a long period of time. And animals can pass the poison on to humans. In the early 1800s, many Midwestern pioneers, including Abraham Lincoln's mother, died as a result of milk sickness. That is the poisoning by milk from cows that had eaten the white snakeroot. Animals poisoned by the white snakeroot show signs of depression, including inactivity, and develop trembling limbs. They begin to lose their appetites, become constipated and lose weight. Eventually, the animals slip into comas and die within two to ten days of consuming large amounts of the white snakeroot; this process is delayed in animals who comsume small amounts over long periods of time.