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A sign I put up to protect the Virginia snakeroot plants.

Oh no! The Virginia Snakeroot babies are all gone!

Virginia snakeroot at the Wild Ozark Ginseng Habitat Demonstration Garden.
Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria)

I went out to check on the Virginia snakeroot nursery the other day and was mortified to find nothing. Not. One. Plant.

Virginia Snakeroot … What’s That?

Now, you might be wondering just what’s so important about a plant that really looks like nothing much more than a weed in the woods. It’s a plant of interest to me for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a medicinal plant with a history of being used to treat snakebites and mad dog (rabies). I’m not likely to use it for either of these, but I do have an affinity for medicinal plants.

Second, it’s harder and harder to find because there’s actually a market for the roots. People dig them and then sell them to botanical purveyors who then sell them to pharmaceutical or herbal companies.

It Even Has Look-Alikes

There’s another plant that has very similar leaf shape, but it isn’t snakeroot.

Not Virginia snakeroot. Not sure what it is, though I know what it isn't.
Not Virginia snakeroot. Not sure what it is, but I know what it isn’t.

There’s a long article on the plant and how it was once used at the Herbs2000.com website.

For the past several years I’ve searched our property for this plant and never could find any. In 2015 I found the first plant, but then a major flash flood erased it from the site. Then last year while I was making trails in the Ginseng Habitat Demonstration Garden, I noticed a whole mess of the plants on a little knoll under the cedar trees.

I was so excited. I’d even placed a sign at the entrance to warn visitors not to enter that part because there were so many it would be hard to walk around them without stepping on some. I wanted to collect seeds and propagate more of them.

Poof!

And now they are gone. Completely disappeared. The ground had been disturbed by an armadillo, but I don’t think an armadillo would eat snakeroots. I didn’t see any footprints that might indicate some roaming root digger had come by. Virginia snakeroot is one of the wild plants that botanical buyers purchase, but these plants were so small it would take a ton of the little roots to earn the $30 or so per pound that they can fetch.

Besides that, there were ginseng plants in the vicinity and I can’t see a poacher taking the snakeroot without also taking the ginseng.

So what happened to them?

I think I figured out the answer.

Butterflies.

Or more specifically, caterpillars of the Pipevine Swallowtail. These butterflies are not the pollinators for Virginia snakeroot, but the pipevine plants are the host plants for their larvae. Virginia snakeroot is one of the pipevines, as is wild ginger and Dutchmen’s pipe vine.

While we have lots of wild ginger around, we don’t have many of the Dutchmen’s pipe and I’ll bet what happened to my plants is that they were eaten by the larvae of butterflies. Actually, they weren’t ‘my’ plants. I’m sure the butterflies were excited to see them and call them theirs, too.

It’s the explanation that makes the most sense. If that’s the case, they’ll be back next year. I can find a way to protect a few plants and share the rest with the butterflies. Keep your fingers crossed!

The flower isn't mature yet in this photo. It was when I went back out there to get another photo of the flower that I noticed they were all gone.
The flower isn’t mature yet in this photo. It was when I went back out there to get another photo of the flower that I noticed they were all gone.

 

3 thoughts on “Oh no! The Virginia Snakeroot babies are all gone!”

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  1. Could you tell me how and when to gather seed? I have Virginia snakeroot in my garden that I grew from seed. Now I would like to propagate more.

    1. Hi Susan, I’m excited that you grew some from seeds. That’s something I’ve never done, so I’m sorry I don’t have any experience with that to offer you. I think there are seeds on them right about now, or maybe they’ve already ripened and released. The flower or seedpod is just below the leaf litter on the forest floor. All of mine are just in a little patch on the mountain and I haven’t yet tried to propagate those. I’d love to hear how you did it, and whether or not you get it to work for you from your fresh seeds. The pipevine swallowtail is what eats them down to the ground each year, but they’re pollinated by ants and beetles, so you should have seeds if your plants made flowers this year. Good luck!

      P.S. if you’re a reader browsing through here and know some advice to help Susan, please comment 😀

    2. Hi Susan, another reader emailed me to say that the Virginia snakeroot seed capsule bursts and scatters the seeds when they are ready. I know bloodroot does the same thing. To start new seedlings from those, I have put bloodroot in a pot so that when the seeds dispersed, they landed in nearby pots that I had around that one. It might be easier to just transplant the new ones that start from the seeds, or watch closely at the seedpods and find some way to catch the seeds when they disperse. I went out to take a look at mine, but the plants are all eaten away by pipevine caterpillars and probably won’t come back until spring now. I’ll try to pay closer attention next year to when they bloom and seed, and experiment with capturing some. Please come back here to share if you do the same!

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