Dry, hot summer in Illinois perfect conditions for weed that poisoned Lincoln’s mother

Cattle often graze on white snakeroot instead of the browned grass during dry conditions. (Pixabay)

By Illinois Radio Network

SPRINGFIELD – A poisonous weed that prompted President Abe Lincoln’s family to move to Illinois is putting livestock here at risk.

Abe Lincoln’s mother was killed by milk from a cow that had eaten a poisonous plant. His family relocated to Illinois from Indiana for their safety.

The dry, hot summer has created the perfect conditions for it to threaten livestock here in the Land of Lincoln.

The white snakeroot was responsible for poisoning the milk that killed Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abe’s mother, and many others in Indiana during the early 1800s when he was 9 years old.

The active poison in the slender, white-flowered weed is fat soluble, meaning it will find its way into a lactating cow’s milk and poison a calf or person if they ingest enough.

Horticultural professor Ryan Pankau at the University of Illinois Extension says the Lincoln family and others came to Illinois on word that there weren’t any reports of the poisoning happening there.

“Historically, it’s had an impact on settlers and the population expanding to the west,” he said. The noxious plant is hearty and resilient. It thrives in what Pankau calls “disturbed areas” like trampled ground or drought-ridden brush.

Illinois’ hot, dry summer has made conditions perfect for the plant and the browning pastures made it an attractive grazing target for livestock.

“It gains a competitive advantage over plants that are more sensitive to heat like pasture grasses,” Pankau said.

Poison from ingesting the white snakeroot causes muscle tremors and typically death.

It’s been confirmed present at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, where the government leases pasture to cattle.

“The USDA Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie has many species of grasses, forbs and woody vegetation, such as white snakeroot, that occur in nature,” said Veronica Hinke, public affairs officer at USDA Forest Service – Midewin.

Doctors with Perdue University say cattle, horses, and other livestock should be restricted from access to pastures containing white snakeroot and should be kept inactive if they show symptoms of poisoning.

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