Monday, January 23, 2012

What to do about rattlesnake bites

Early settlers took a keen interest in rattlesnake bites and what to do about them. It must have come as a shock to Europeans to encounter snakes that could deliver such nasty bites, along with those alarming rattles.

One wonders, though, how serious the risk really was. Currently about 4000 to 7000 snakebites are reported every year in the U.S., out of a much bigger population than in the early 18th century. Epidemiology? Well, it’s a little embarrassing, but the overwhelming majority of snakebite victims are young white males, most of whom are bitten on the hands. North Carolina has the highest frequency of snakebites, and Georgia had the third-highest rate of fatalities. “Hey, ya’ll, it’s a snake! I'll git ’im!”

So maybe Catesby and his ilk had reason to worry. Demographically and geographically they were in snakebite central.

One sure cure for snakebite was a poultice made with rattlesnake root, from the genus Prenanthes. Prenanthes altissima, for example, grows widely in the woods in the Upstate. Here’s one growing near Oconee Station.

Catesby collected a related rattlesnake root, Prenanthes autumnalis (HS 212 f 83). It’s just as good for treating rattlesnake bites. Catesby didn't mention the bite-treating properties, though.

He did, however cite Aletris aurea, HS 232 f 105, as a possible cure: “The Root of this plant the Indians esteem good for the Bite of the Rattlesnake.”

Now this is interesting. I can’t find anyone else recommending Aletris aurea as a cure for snakebite. I consulted Dr. William M. Hand’s 1849 work The House Surgeon and Physisian: Designed to Assist Heads of Families, Travellers, and Sea-Faring People, in Discerning, Distinguishing, and Curing Diseases; with Concise Directions for the Preparation and Use of a Numerous Collection of the Best American Remedies: Together with Many of the Most Approved, from the Shop of the Apothecary. All in Plain English. Dr. Hand informed me that Aletris Aurea can be used in the same was as its relative Aletris Alba, known as colic-root, among other colorful names. Made into a tea it can be used as a purgative to treat dropsy, indigestion, and to treat hysteric and flatulent colic. But nothing about snakebite. For that you’ll need to find a Prenanthes.