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