SCI-NY: The deadly plant popping up in everyone’s front yard has a long, tragic history and changed Abraham Lincoln’s life.

“All that I am or hope ever to be, I get from my mother – God bless her.” – Abraham Lincoln

Walking around New York City is always full of surprises, especially when it comes to the morsels of Nature that inevitably creep through the cracks in the pavement and wiggle through holes in living room floors or bedroom walls. During the past few weeks, I noticed clusters of white flowers popping up all over the place in my neighborhood. The first place I noticed them was alongside the tracks of the Long Island Railroad that cuts through Queens on the way to Manhattan. 

Just a smattering. 

Not too Many. 

But then I started noticing them in more places, particularly in front yards whose owners may not have the time or inclination to tend to on a constant basis. Understandable. This is New York and everyone’s busy.

One block in particular seemed overrun by this plant. Entire yards were overrun by it. On some occasions, it even made the jump from front yards to the rectangular cut outs on the sidewalk made for trees. Turns out, the dainty white flowers popping up like stars in a constellation belonged to a poisonous plant with a deadly history that had a devastating and profound influence on Abraham Lincoln’s life and later outlook. We’ll get to that later.

First some science.

White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is a perilous perennial herb native to North America, recognized for its toxic component, tremetol, a toxic alcohol present in its leaves and stems. When livestock such as cattle, horses, goats, and sheep graze on this plant, tremetol induces a condition often referred to as “trembles” due to the muscular tremors it causes, alongside weakness, and in severe cases, death. However, the peril of white snakeroot extends beyond the direct consumption by livestock. 

The toxin tremetol can transition into the milk of lactating animals and remain in the meat, thereby endangering humans who consume these contaminated products. The ingestion of tremetol-contaminated meat or milk can lead to a form of poisoning known as “milk sickness” in humans. 

Tremetol, a toxic compound found in white snakeroot, poses serious health threats to both livestock and humans upon ingestion. The effects manifest differently across species, painting a complex scenario of ecological and health challenges, especially in regions where white snakeroot is prevalent, and livestock rearing is a common practice.

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In livestock, the initial signs of tremetol poisoning include listlessness, significant weight loss, and pronounced trembling in the legs and muzzle, which typically manifest several hours post-ingestion of white snakeroot. As the effects of the poison progress, animals may exhibit abdominal pain, polydipsia (excessive thirst), and vomiting.

Further progression may lead to constipation, appetite loss, weakness, and difficulty in standing or walking. Severe cases escalate to a complete loss of muscle coordination, eventually spiraling into stupor, coma, and death usually within two to ten days from the onset of symptoms.

The manifestation of symptoms varies across different species; cattle and sheep may exude peculiar odors in breath and urine, exhibit breathing difficulties, and over-salivation. In contrast, horses may display depression, bloody urine, choking, and stand with their hind legs wide apart, among other symptoms. Guinea pigs might crouch with half-closed eyes and experience roughening of the hair.

On the other hand, humans usually encounter tremetol poisoning through the consumption of milk, meat, or other dairy products from cattle that have fed on white snakeroot, a condition often termed as “milk sickness” or “tremetol vomiting.” The hallmark symptoms in humans include trembling, vomiting, and severe intestinal pain.

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The intricacies of tremetol’s toxicology are further complicated by its chemical composition. Tremetol is a complex mixture with tremetone being one of its main constituents among at least 11 chemically related substances. Interestingly, tremetone’s toxicity varies across species; for instance, while it is toxic to many animals, it does not affect chickens.

The breadth of tremetol’s toxic effects encompasses a wide range of animals including humans, cattle, horses, sheep, goats, mules, hogs, fowl, dogs, cats, and various laboratory animals. However, the morbidity rate from tremetol poisoning is generally low, likely attributable to selective grazing habits among animals, which might mitigate the risk of consuming tremetol-containing plants. The persistent danger posed by tremetol is underscored by its resistance to elimination or reduction even through modern practices like pasteurization, implying that milk sickness remains a risk if the milk originates from cattle that have grazed on white snakeroot.

The toxicological properties of white snakeroot are somewhat shared with rayless goldenrod (Isocoma pluriflora), as they contain similar toxins collectively known as tremetol. The toxic properties of white snakeroot remain potent even after drying and storage over several years. The endurance of its toxic properties, even after a significant decrease of about 80% of its toxin tremetone post drying and five-year storage, underpins the lasting danger posed by white snakeroot to both livestock and humans. Its historical misinterpretation and lethal nature make white snakeroot a fascinating yet dangerous flora, necessitating cautious management especially in regions where livestock are reared.

This interaction between white snakeroot, livestock, and humans orchestrated by tremetol underscores a complex ecological and health predicament. It highlights the necessity for informed grazing practices and public awareness, especially in regions where white snakeroot is common, to mitigate the risks associated with tremetol poisoning.

White Snakeroot and Abraham Lincoln’s Mental Health.

Milk poisoning via tremetol was a notable issue in the 19th century when settlers, unfamiliar with the dangers of white snakeroot, moved to areas where the plant thrived. It was a dreaded disease among settlers in the Midwest, including Indiana, where the Abraham Lincoln’s family resided. The disease claimed many lives, and the lack of a cure or effective treatment made it a significant concern for families like the Lincolns​​. In 1818, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s mother died from milk sickness.

The loss of his mother at a young age had a profound effect on Abraham Lincoln which he alluded to in a heartfelt letter to Fanny McCullough amidst the devastating backdrop of the Civil War. In his usual eloquence, the President delved into the universal experience of sorrow, emphasizing its pronounced sting in youth as it comes “with bitterest agony…and unawares.” 

Reflecting on his personal tragedies, starting from the death of his mother at age nine, which he regarded as a calamity seeding his lifelong depression, to the loss of his first love, Ann Rutledge, and his beloved son, Willie, Lincoln empathetically assured Fanny that time gradually transmutes acute agony into a “sad sweet feeling.” 

His phrase, “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all,” epitomizes his acceptance of grief as an inevitable facet of life, while his own enduring sorrow for his “Angel Mother” reflects how early loss sculpted his empathetic character. Through this lens, Lincoln’s letter isn’t merely a consolation, but a poignant reflection of his life-long acquaintance with sorrow, interwoven with his enduring maternal loss.

Recognition of the dangers associated with white snakeroot came several decades later, with Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby identifying the plant as the cause of milk sickness in the 1830s. Contrary to its dangerous reality, early settlers initially believed that white snakeroot could be used to treat snakebites, which is the origin of its common name. 

IMAGE CREDIT: Scientific Inquirer.

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