Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Seneca snakeroot has a rather strange distribution in North Dakota; plants have been collected only in an area north and east of a line connecting the northwest and southeast corners of the state. Surprisingly, in terms of annual precipitation, this area includes some of our dryest and wettest areas. Elsewhere, Seneca snakeroot is found from New Brunswick to Alberta, south to Georgia and Arkansas.
Seneca snakeroot is a perennial about 6 to 20 inches tall. Several stems usually arise from a thick rootcrown. The alternate leaves are small and scalelike below, but lance-shaped and sometimes over an inch wide near the top of the plant. Several dozen small, greenish-white flowers are crowded into spikes at the tips of the branches. At maturity, the rounded capsules are about 3/16-inch long and filled with black seeds.
Look for Seneca snakeroot in June or July on native prairie, especially where soils are calcareous. The Seneca used this herb for coughs, colds, and snake bites. Other North American tribes used the plant for heart problems and to treat insect stings. The dried roots, dug in autumn, were also used as an expectorant, irritant, and stimulant. Plants were cultivated in Europe as early as 1739. Many of the 500 or so other species of Polygala found worldwide are used for food, fiber, drug, dye, or perfume purposes. Research interest in Seneca snakeroot is high; eleven tons were sold in Winnipeg as late as 1987.
Senega snakeroot is a member of the milkwort family (Polygalaceae). The family and genus name stems from the Greek polus, "much," and gala, "milk." Thus the ancient Greek physician to the Roman Army, Dioscorides, applied the name Polygala to some low shrub reputed to increase lactation. The specific epithet refers to the Seneca tribe. Senega snakeroot was first described for science by the Swedish father of modern plant taxomomy, Carl von Linne (Linneaeus).