By Becca Badgett, Co-author of How to Grow an EMERGENCY Garden
The rattlesnake master plant originally got its name when it was thought to effectively treat bites from this snake. Although it was later learned that the plant does not have this type of medicinal effect, the name remains. Click here to learn more about this plant.
Wildlowers and native grasses are a natural combination.
The following ten tips combine the principles of plant ecology with those of traditional garden design. It is our hope that you will select the ideas that you wish to apply in your garden and express your own unique style using our wildflowers and native grasses in designing your wildflower garden.
1) Plant Flowers and Grasses Together to create a natural meadow effect. The dense root systems of the grasses dominate the upper soil and help to squeeze out the weeds. The grasses essentially do most of the weeding for you, simply by eliminating open soil available for weed seed germination.
2) Select the Plants to Match the Scale of your landscape. Use the shorter flowers and grasses in small meadow gardens. The short grasses, such as Little Bluestem, Side Oats Grama, and Prairie Dropseed are clump-formers that leave room between them for flowers. Most of the tall native grasses form a dense sod and do not always accommodate a diversity of flowers.
3) Plant Deep-Rooted Wildflowers with the grasses. Many wildflowers have tremendously deep roots that can grow down 10 feet or more into the soil, well below the grasses root systems. The grasses and flowers thus share the soil rooting environment and utilize water and nutrients extremely efficiently.
4) Plant Flowers in Masses and Drifts of colour to create impact in the garden. This technique can be very dramatic. We recommend mass plantings or drifts with a relatively non-competitive grass such as Side Oats Grama to help keep weeds down. Mass plantings of only one or two species of flower often experience weed problems. In a manicured or heavily-mulched garden, this may not be a concern.
5) Arrange Plants to Complement one another, both texturally and in colour combinations. For instance, plant the flowering spikes of the blazingstars (Liatris) in front of the bold foliage of Prairie Dock. (Silphium terebinthinaceum). Most wildflowers mix well with the grasses, the green grass foliage serving as a background that highlights the flowers.
6) Select Plants for Succession of Bloom throughout the growing season. This ensures that something interesting is always going on in your garden. Remember that the grasses will still provide a show in fall and winter when the flowers are gone.
7 ) Plant Tall Plants in Back, Short in Front. This rather obvious principle is essential in successfully displaying and enjoying your plants. Tall plants can be used quite effectively planted against a wall or wooden fence.
8) Include Spring Blooming Flowers in the garden. Many of the shorter, spring-bloomers are some of the most attractive and delicate of the wildflowers. Most spring wildflowers go dormant by mid-summer, thus making good companions for a variety of other flowers and grasses, tall or short.
9) Use Large "Specimen" Plants as architectural focal points in the garden. Surround individual specimen plants with lower-growing flowers and grasses to really help them show off their special attributes.
10) Attract Songbirds and Butterflies with wildflowers. The flowers provide food and combined with the grasses, create habitat for wildlife, adding drama to your garden as these creatures go about their business. Early blooming flowers provide spring nectar for butterflies. Blazingstars and coneflowers are on the mid-summer menu, and asters and goldenrods sustain late season visitors. Silphiums, sunflowers, and grasses provide nutritious seeds for winter birds.
By integrating the principles of ecology with those of garden design, you can create attractive, ecologically sound wildflower gardens. These gardens will require no fertilizers, pesticides or irrigation to keep them healthy and vibrant. Even during severe heat and drought, wildflower gardens continue to perform while other plants succumb to the weather.
Some good flower combinations include:
Butterflyweed and Pale Purple Coneflower
Smooth Aster and Sky Blue Aster
Lanceleaf Coreopsis and Lupine
Prairie Blazingstar and Rattlesnake Master
Prairie Blazingstar and Wild Quinine
Smooth Penstemon and Spiderwort
Queen of the Prairie and Prairie Blazingstar
Joe Pye Weed and Great Blue Lobelia
When a plant has “rattlesnake” in its name, there has to be a story behind it. There are at least three plants native to Illinois that do: Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens), Rattlesnake Root, also known as Rough White Lettuce (Prenanthes aspera), and Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium). Rattlesnake Master is planted in several public gardens in the Springfield area. Gardens include U of I Extension Prairie to Perennial garden, Native Wildflower garden at Lincoln Memorial Garden, and the Dana-Thomas House in both the Cottage Butterfly Garden and the Courtyard.
Rattlesnake Master grows best in full sun with slightly moist to dry conditions. The bluish-green leaves of the plant are up to 2 feet long, with pointed tips and small teeth along the margins, resembling those of yucca, hence the Latin name. These tough, fibrous leaves were woven into shoes by Native Americans. The Mesquakies used the leaves and flowers in their rattlesnake medicine song and dance. The roots were used for a variety of ailments.
Rattlesnake master can grow to 2 to 5 feet tall and is found in prairies and open woods throughout the state, blooming in July and August. The flowers are tightly packed into thistle-like round heads. Whitish bracts stick out from the flower heads, giving a prickly appearance and feel. The greenish-white thistle like nectar producing flowers are attractive to many types of insects including bees, butterflies, beetles and moths. Blooms appear in mid-summer and the seedheads remain attractive for several months. The plant is from the carrot/parsley family, so Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies may lay their eggs on the leaves.
Article written by Susan Shaw, University of Illinois Extension master naturalist volunteer.
Illinois Wildflower by Don Kurz, copyright 2004 and 2014 by Tim Ernst Publishing
Prairie Plants of Illinois by John W. Voight and Robert H. Mohlenbrock, printed by the State of Illinois Department of Conservation
The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification by Dave Williams copyright 2010 by the Tallgrass Prairie Center
Rattlesnake master flowers bloom in the summer and can last up to two months. They are highly attractive to a wide variety of insects including over 30 species of bees. Photo credit: Crazytwoknobs, cc-by 3.0
Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is an unusual wildflower native to open areas in much of the central and eastern U.S. In the wild, it is an indicator of high-quality remnant prairie or barrens. It is also commonly included in prairie restoration or large pollinator plantings. In recent years, it has increased in popularity as a garden plant as well.
One of the striking components of rattlesnake master is its foliage. It has an almost greyish green color and the individual leaves are reminiscent of yucca leaves including the little white “hairs” or soft prickles along the edges. In fact, the scientific name for rattlesnake master basically means prickly plant with yucca-like leaves. In a garden setting, the foliage provides visual interest even when the plant isn’t blooming.
Rattlesnake master is a summer-blooming plant that can be in bloom for a month or two. In Kentucky, that typically translates to July and August, although they may start blooming as early as late-June. The blooms are tight, ball-like clusters of white flowers. The flowers are extremely attractive to a wide variety of insect visitors. One study counted over 180 different species visiting rattlesnake master flowers including a wide variety of bees, wasps, flies, butterflies (including monarchs), beetles, and true bugs. Many of the wasps that visit rattlesnake master are predators that gather other insects to feed their young, including some insects that are considered pest species.
Most of the insect visitors to rattlesnake master are coming to drink the abundant nectar which has been described as having a honey-like smell. Only a few species of bees, mostly bumble bees, actively gather nectar from the flowers. In addition to being a valuable source of nectar, rattlesnake master is also the only host plant for the caterpillars of two relatively rare species of moths. After the flowers stop blooming, finches and other songbirds may move in to eat the seeds. Deer, rabbits, and other mammalian herbivores mostly avoid eating rattlesnake master leaves, which makes it a good option for pollinator gardens in areas where there is heavy deer pressure.
Rattlesnake master has unique foliage for a member of the carrot family. The leaves are long and narrow with stiff hairs or soft prickles along the edges. They are reminiscent of yucca leaves – a fact that is reflected in the scientific name. Photo credit: Frank Mayfield, cc-by-sa 2.0
Just looking at the plant, most people would never guess that rattlesnake master is in the carrot family. However, like other members of the carrot family, rattlesnake master has a large taproot. The taproot helps the plant survive droughts, but also makes it hard to transplant so it is best not to try and move established plants.
In addition to its ecological value, rattlesnake master also has a long history of use by humans. Woven moccasins made from rattlesnake master have been found in Mammoth Cave and date back to prehistoric activities in the cave 2,000 – 4,000 years ago. Other prehistoric woven items such as bags, cords, and additional moccasins made from rattlesnake master fibers have been found in other caves throughout the southeast as well and date to the same general time period. The common name, “rattlesnake master,” refers to the fact that this plant was once used as a treatment for snakebites.
Today, rattlesnake master is used primarily for restoration and gardening purposes. If you want a unique plant that is attractive to a wide variety of pollinators, provides visual interest even when it isn’t in bloom, and is fairly deer resistant, then rattlesnake master is a species that you might want to consider. It grows well in a range of soil moistures, just don’t plant it in extremely dry or extremely wet soils. It prefers full sun, but can take a little shade. It is also best grown in locations where it has some competition from other surrounding plants – otherwise it might grow too tall and fall over.
Shannon Trimboli is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. In 2018, her first book, Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, was published. Shannon also writes a weekly blog called Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife. The blog features profiles of pollinators and wildlife, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife, and life on the farm and nursery. You can sign up to have her blog emailed to you.
Help the pollinators and add a bit of unique beauty to your garden with Rattlesnake Master.
This drought tolerant perennial provides nectar for a large number of beneficial insects, including many of our native bees. The blue-green leaves resemble yucca and the white blooms look like globe thistle.
You’ll find this native perennial growing in prairies, along the roadside and in open woods.
It tolerates drought, clay soil and grows well in dry shallow and rocky soils. Rattlesnake master grows 3 to 6 feet tall and will flop in overly rich soils. So limit fertilization and plant it with some sturdy neighbors like grasses and Russian sage.
Rattlesnake master will self-seed. Enjoy the extra plants or harvest the seeds when the seedheads are brown to share with friends. Plant these in fall or place in the refrigerator for spring planting.
A bit more information: Use Rattlesnake master in native, informal or even formal gardens. Cut a few flowers to use fresh or dried. Enjoy the hummingbirds and butterflies they attract and the fact the deer tend to leave them be.