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Flora Fact: Snakeweed

As toxic as it sounds, this shrub can kill livestock.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

From a distance, the mounds of golden yellow flowers cloaking roadsides and fenced pastures this month provide fall color for travelers on Texas highways. But don't be fooled by their pretty disposition.

Long despised by ranchers, broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae) ranks among the state's 106 most toxic plants. Cattle, sheep and goats can get sick and even die after grazing the perennial shrub. Cattle may also abort, or give birth to stillborn or weak calves, according to Toxic Plants of Texas. Loss of livestock attributed to snakeweed poisoning costs ranchers millions of dollars annually.

On the flip side, desert mule deer occasionally browse the plant. Many small birds and mammals eat its seeds and use the foliage as protective cover.

Drought tolerant, broom snakeweed prefers the sandy, chalky and clay soils of dry ranges and deserts. Its tiny yellow flowers – produced in clusters called corymbs – bloom profusely from August through November. In the winter, snakeweed dies back, leaving brittle stems that make great kindling; hence, its other common names of "matchweed" and "matchbrush." In bygone times, dry snakeweed tied to sticks also served well as brooms.

Native American Ethnobotany lists a multitude of medicinal uses for snakeweed, including as a treatment for indigestion, bee stings, headaches, diarrhea, painful menstruations, colds, fevers and nosebleeds, not to mention snakebites, too.

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