Wild Ones   Wild Ones Archive 2002, Nov 08:  
  Ques #20: Gall of the Earth  

Wild Ones 2002 Archive

    QUESTION #20: Gall-of-the-Earth

    Does anyone have information on whether Prenanthes trifoliata is a separate species from P. alba. And how did the name Gall-of-the-Earth originate? It would be a pity to discover that such a splendid name has no species to attach itself to!

    -- Peter of Birmingham, MI



    About Gall of the Earth, according to the Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers, Prenanthes trifoliata(Gall of the Earth) is different from P. alba (White Lettuce, orRattlesnake-Root). The pictures look well-nigh alike, but when you read the description, Rattlesnake-Root has cinnamon brown pappus beneath the floral envelope. Basically, it looks like when you look at the dangling flower, there are the very small bracts, then some other bract-like petals, and then the petals. Under those bract-like petals, there should be cinnamon-brown material.

    Also, Gall-of-the-Earth has a smooth, waxy, reddish stem, while rattlesnake-root has a smooth, purplish stem with a whitish bloom. This might be difficult to tell the difference in the field, but the cinnamon-brown characteristic should be a dead give-away.

    -- Susan of Ann Arbor, MI


    According to Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (1977 ed.) on page 384 there are two Prenanthes species listed as Gall-of-the-earth: P. trifoliata and P. serpentaria. There are four species listed under Rattlesnake Roots (Prenanthes), which is described as, "Flower heads about 1/2" long, bell-shaped, usually nodding. Whitish, cream-colored or pinkish flowers. The leaves vary from divided to remotely toothed. Tall White Lettuce (p. 212) has 5 or 6 rays. Late summer and fall. Composite Family.

    "White Lettuce (P. alba) Stem and leaves with a whitish bloom; pappus (hairs beneath the bracts of the flower head) deep red-brown. Stem usually purplish. 2-5' high. Woods and thickets.

    "Tall Rattlesnake Root or Gall-of-the-earth (P. trifoliata) Stem and leaves without bloom; lower leave rather thin, usually in 3 segments, and with pointed lobes; pappus creamy-white. 2-6' high. Woods and thickets, Nfld. to Ohio south; uncommon south of PA. A dwarf form occurs on alpine summits.

    "Lion's Foot or Gall-of-the-earth (P. serpentaria) Similar to the Tall Rattlesnake Root, but the lower leaves are thickish and bluntly lobed. Flower cluster rather flat-topped. 1-4' high. Dry woods and barrens, Mass. to Ohio south; uncommon north of Md.

    "Boott's Rattlesnake Root (P. bootii) A dwarf, alpine species with triangular or heart-shaped, almost entire, lower leaves. N. N.Eng. and n. N.Y."

    P. trifoliata is not listed by E. G. Voss or in the Michigan Floristic Quality Assessment as being in Michigan under that name. If you are still searching natural history information on the "Gall-of-the-Earth" name, you might try Sanders, Jack. Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles: The Lives and Lore of North American Wildflowers. Camden Main: ragged Mountain Press, 1993. For more information on whether or not P. trifoliata is the same species as P. alba, you might contact someone at Cranbrook. Maryann Whitman, Oakland Chapter member and Features Editor for the Wild Ones Journal, might have a contact at Cranbrook if you don't.

    --Marji from Hastings, MI


    Prenanthes alba and Prenanthes trifoliolata are TWO SEPARATE SPECIES. The main difference between them is the color of the pappus. alba's is cinnamon-brown and trifoliolata's is light brown. Trifoliolata seems to be restricted to the eastern US from Newfoundland to NC and TN. Farther west it hybridizes with P. alba and P. altissima. It should not occur in the Midwest. The leaves appear more deeply cut on trifoliolata also.

    -- Pat of Naperville, IL


    My research would lead me to surmise the following: It is of the same family as ‘Rattlesnake root'. A decoction of the root has in the past been used to treat rattlesnake bites. This decoction (taken by mouth I presume) is said to be very bitter. Gall is very bitter. Perhaps P. trifoliata is the most bitter of this genus, and hence, Gall-of-the-earth.

    -- Maryann of Oakland, MI


    Prenanthes alba according to the Michigan Floristic Quality Assessment is a Native Perennial Forb also called White Lettuce. The other plant is not listed.

    -- Jewel, Wetlands Nursery, Saginaw MI 48601

    According to Gleason and Cronquist (1991) A manual of Vascular Plants, 2nd ed., P. alba is commonly known as rattlesnake root, while P. trifoliata is called Gall-of-the-earth. P. alba has a cinnamon colored pappus ( modified calyx of hair-like bristles surrounding the ovary in members of the Asteraceae), while P. trifoliata has a straw colored or light brown pappus. Both are commonly known as "white lettuce" . Don't know where gall-of-the-earth came from.

    -- Bill of Oshkosh, WI

    I'm not a botanical expert, but as recently as 2000 Prenanthes trifoliata and P. alba are listed as separate species in the "Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of the Washington-Baltimore Area" by Stanwyn G. Shetler and Sylvia Stone Orli of the Department of Botany at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. However, which species can claim the name "Gall-of-the-Earth" is less clear. Shetler and Orli list it both for P. trifoliata and for P. serpentaria (alternating with "lion's foot"). Gleason & Cronquist agree that "Gall-of-the-Earth"is P. trifoliata (Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeaster United States and Adjacent Canada, 1991), but they're the only ones of 4 sources I checked who are so positive. None of the sources I checked listed a reason for the name, and after reading the botanical descriptions of these 3 species, I'll hope I never have to distinguish among them!

    -- Margaret, Falls Church, VA

    Check out this web page that I found on the Gall-of-the-Earth name http://www.geocities.com/amcwalks/hilarysamplepages.html. Sorry I didn't have time to check further. Interesting! There were also several nice pictures on different websites.

    -- Cyndi of Bonduel, WI

    Yes, they are different species.

    -- Rob Ryf of Berlin, WI

    In answer to the question on Prenanthes alba vs Prenanthes trifoliata, according to my sources they are different species. Trifoliata is not listed on the UW-Herbarium website, but alba is. (http://www.botany.wisc.edu/wisflora). Trifoliata, however, is listed in Gray's Manual of Botany (page 1561) and in An Illustrated Flora of the Northern U.S. and Canada (page 336) as separate species. I have nothing in my data base on the origin of the name, Gall-of-the-Earth. However, that does not mean there isn't an explanation buried in an obscure publication somewhere.

    -- Janice of Bailey's Harbor, WI

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