Seneca-snakeroot is native to prairies and dry open woodland across southern Canada, from New Brunswick to Alberta. Its range extends south throughout much of the eastern and central United States.
Seneca-snakeroot is native to prairies and dry open woodland across southern Canada, from New Brunswick to Alberta. Its range extends south throughout much of the eastern and central United States.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Seneca-snakeroot (Polygala senega)

During the Depression of the 1930s, when crops often failed or provided little income, many prairie families earned a little much-needed cash by digging Seneca-snakeroot.

Thomas G. Barnes
USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Barnes, T.G. & S.W. Francis. 2004. Wildflowers and ferns of Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky

© Thomas G. Barnes


This plant got its common name from the Seneca First Nation's use of it as a treatment for snake bite. Other First Nations used the root for respiratory problems, headache, and stomach ache.

As early as the 1700s, the root had reached Europe, where it was given for respiratory problems, such as pneumonia. In the first half of the 1900s, it was an ingredient in many patent medicines and over-the-counter remedies, especially for bronchitis.

In the 1950s and 60s, as antibiotics and other new drugs came on the market, the demand for Seneca-snakeroot declined. While, in 1930, Canadians had harvested - and mostly exported - over 700,000 pounds of dried roots, by the 1960s the harvest was no longer commercially important. With the resurgence of interest in herbal medicines, however, demand for Seneca-snakeroot began to increase again in the late 1900s.

This plant got its common name from the Seneca First Nation's use of it as a treatment for snake bite. Other First Nations used the root for respiratory problems, headache, and stomach ache.

As early as the 1700s, the root had reached Europe, where it was given for respiratory problems, such as pneumonia. In the first half of the 1900s, it was an ingredient in many patent medicines and over-the-counter remedies, especially for bronchitis.

In the 1950s and 60s, as antibiotics and other new drugs came on the market, the demand for Seneca-snakeroot declined. While, in 1930, Canadians had harvested - and mostly exported - over 700,000 pounds of dried roots, by the 1960s the harvest was no longer commercially important. With the resurgence of interest in herbal medicines, however, demand for Seneca-snakeroot began to increase again in the late 1900s.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Seneca-snakeroot contains several chemical compounds that act as expectorants to reduce phlegm in the respiratory tract. Today it is used primarily in herbal and over-the-counter cough medicines, especially in Europe and east Asia. 
Seneca-snakeroot contains several chemical compounds that act as expectorants to reduce phlegm in the respiratory tract. Today it is used primarily in herbal and over-the-counter cough medicines, especially in Europe and east Asia. 

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Seneca-snakeroot is a small (10 - 50 cm) perennial, with spikes of white flowers in summer. Although a handsome and hardy plant, it tends to be sold only by growers who specialize in native and/or medicinal plants. Seed is slow to germinate. Plants are becoming scarce in some areas and should not be taken from the wild for garden use.
Seneca-snakeroot is a small (10 - 50 cm) perennial, with spikes of white flowers in summer. Although a handsome and hardy plant, it tends to be sold only by growers who specialize in native and/or medicinal plants. Seed is slow to germinate. Plants are becoming scarce in some areas and should not be taken from the wild for garden use.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Most Seneca-snakeroot from Canada is wildcrafted - gathered from its natural habitat.- primarily in Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan.

There is increasing concern that Seneca-snakeroot is becoming rarer in parts of its range. Since the plant has been raised successfully as a crop in other parts of the world, notably Japan, the possibility of growing Seneca-snakeroot as a cultivated crop in Canada is being explored.
Most Seneca-snakeroot from Canada is wildcrafted - gathered from its natural habitat.- primarily in Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan.

There is increasing concern that Seneca-snakeroot is becoming rarer in parts of its range. Since the plant has been raised successfully as a crop in other parts of the world, notably Japan, the possibility of growing Seneca-snakeroot as a cultivated crop in Canada is being explored.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • describe the plant Seneca-snakeroot;
  • explain why Seneca-snakeroot is interesting as a plant remedy.

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