In Bloom This Week: Eryngo

This bristly beauty (Eryngium leavenworthii) is blooming all across Meadow Knoll this week, turning the fields a brilliant purple. I know what you’re thinking: that it looks a lot like a thistle. But it isn’t, although one of its folk names is Coyote Thistle–which you will understand if you remember that Coyote is a trickster creature, always attempting to deceive his friends into believing that he’s something else.

But eryngo is actually a member of the carrot or parsley family. It’s a perennial wildflower here–an annual farther north–and it grows easily from seed all across the Plains states. It blooms in the early fall, a gorgeous sight that has a powerful appeal to butterflies, moths, bees, bumblebees, and a host of other pollinators. The tiny flowers are protected by those spiny purple bracts you can see in the photo, designed (I imagine) to keep grazing animals at bay.

One of the eryngo cousins (Eryngium yuccifolium) was widely used by the American Plains Indians. Also called rattlesnake master or button snakeroot, it was used as a sedative, and to treat liver ailments, venereal disease, snakebites, impotence, intestinal parasites, and even cataracts. It was also used in rattlesnake medicine dances. It’s said that the medicine men chewed the root, blew on their hands, and could then handle the snakes. Please don’t try this at home! But you could make your local pollinators very happy if you added this plant to your  native plant garden.

This week on the desk.  My current work-in-progress is a biographical novel about the friendship of Maria Chabot and Georgia O’Keeffe, which produced the amazing adobe house you may have visited in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I’ve finished working through the letters the two exchanged during the decade of their active friendship and am looking forward to reading Maria’s own narrative of that time, among her papers held by the O’Keeffe Museum and Library in Santa Fe. It’s a fascinating story–hoping to start writing this week!

On the the bookshelf: Hemlock, China’s latest adventure. This one sends her on a journey to North Carolina–and back in time, to the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, whose Curious Herbal was a British bestseller in the mid-1700s. Hemlock is available in hardcover, paperback, eBook, and audio. If your library doesn’t have it yet, please let them know you’d like to read it.

And a personal note. There’s an extensive scientific study that reviews the many medicinal uses of Eryngo sp.–among them, the treatment of cataracts. I’ve never tried this herb for that purpose, but this summer, after a year-long pandemic postponement, I was finally able to get my cataract surgery done. It was a good experience with a remarkable (for me) outcome: an amazing improvement in my ability to see. If this surgery is on your to-do list, please don’t hesitate!

Reading note. The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.–Helen Keller

19 comments on “In Bloom This Week: Eryngo

  1. I’m reading Helmock now. It’s always uplifting to read about early women botanists. My cataract surgery is really due, but I’m very nervous…

  2. What a beautiful flower, I wonder if it will grow in Maine. I have your new book Hemlock, but can’t read it until Christmas, it’s a gift.

    • You might try it as an annual, Elaine. The seeds aren’t hard to find online. Look for Blue Eryngo or the gray variety (Miss Willmot’s Ghost).

  3. Eryngo? oh, , how I love this plant! we live in Syracuse New York, but, I must try to grow this.maybe taking it inside for fall and winter? what do you think? your plotting is terrific; ‘ your books because they always teach me!

  4. I enjoyed every page of Hemlock. It is both entertaining and educational. Will you be coming to New Mexico to study and read some of the information for your new book? You recent surgery will be an enormous help with your project. Janet Henderson in wonderful Santa Fe.

    • Thank you, Pat–I’m smiling. Friends, if you’re curious, here the story: The Edwardian gardener Ellen Willmott was a passionate lover of Eryngium giganteum, a tall, silvery eryngo. She is said to have surreptitiously introduced it to other gardens by dropping the seed when she visited–haunting her friends’ gardens with Miss Willmott’s Ghost.

  5. Thanks for telling us about this plant. Here in Maine we have thistles, but not eryngo. Of course the asters are blooming now and delighting bees. I’m thrilled that Hemlock is out, too. 🙂

  6. Wonderful picture and info about Eryngo. Always fascinate by various plants ability to look like another plant. And good to know that it attracts pollinators. Very happy to hear that your cataract surgery has been so successful! Thanks for letting us know!

  7. Thanks for the quote from Helen Keller. When I was a child, we traveled thru Florence Alabama to get to my grandmother’s home. We stopped once to visit Helen’s house. I’ve always been fascinated by her story and accomplishments.

  8. I didn’t know this amazing plant. It’s quite beautiful, and small, you say.

    And I can also attest to the joy of having had the cataract operation I didn’t realize how dim my world was and how great to see again as I once did. Helps with birding,

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