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Plants are upright or sometimes ascending, growing to 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) tall, producing single or multi-stemmed clumps in mid to late summer and fall. The flowers are a clean white color and after blooming, small seeds with fluffy white tails are released to blow in the wind. They are found in woods and brush thickets where they bloom mid to late summer or fall. The species is adaptive to different growing conditions; it is found in woods and brush thickets and also in shady areas with open bare ground, and can be weedy in shady landscapes and hedgerows. There are two different varieties: Ageratina altissima var. altissima and Ageratina altissima var. roanensis (Appalachian white snakeroot); they differ in the length of the flower phyllaries and shape of the apices.
White snakeroot contains the toxin tremetol; when the plants are consumed by cattle, the meat and milk become contaminated with the toxin. When milk or meat containing the toxin is consumed, the poison is passed on to humans. If consumed in large enough quantities, it can cause tremetol poisoning in humans. The poisoning is also called milk sickness, as humans often ingested the toxin by drinking the milk of cows that had eaten snakeroot.During the early 19th century, when large numbers of European Americans from the East, who were unfamiliar with snakeroot, began settling in the plant's habitat of the Midwest and Upper South, many thousands were killed by milk sickness. Notably, milk sickness was possibly the cause of death in 1818 of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, mother of Abraham Lincoln.
White snakeroot is most easily identifiable in the fall, when its fluffy white flower heads appear, but it has another distinctive characteristic that appears when it leafs out in spring. Look for elaborate, curving trails on some leaves. These are the work of a species of fly (Liriomyza eupatoriella) that makes white snakeroot its host. The fly lays its eggs on the leaf, and after they hatch, the larvae feed on the leaf tissue, tunneling their way around and creating the beautiful, albeit destructive patterns. Vegetable gardeners may recognize these patterns as the telltale sign of leaf miners that attack their chard, beet, spinach, and tomato plants in much the same way. The intricate tunnels don't do these plants any good, though white snakeroot seems better able to tolerate them than some other species. Another wondrous peek into the complexities of nature: The same plant that could kill a cow is baby food for a tiny fly! (Source: www.bbg.org)