Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Bloodroot, or Papoose Flower, in bud

Bloodroot in Flower
Bloodroot flowers up close at their peak
     Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) goes by a variety of common names due its many different uses and properties: Red Indian Paint, Redroot, Puccoon (Virginia Algonquian Indian for "blood"), Sangdragon, Coonroot, Sweet Slumber (for its narcotic properties), Snakebite (for its bitter taste), Turmeric, Papoose Flower (for the way the emerging leaf wraps around the bud), and Tetterwort (for its use in treating skin disorders, or tetters). It is the only member of its genus (which again refers to the blood color of its sap).
     Bloodroot is one of the earliest spring ephemeral plants, blooming well before the trees leaf out and then disappearing underground until the following year. The flowers are equally fleeting, with the petals falling off easily in wind or rain, rarely lasting more than a few days at most. They are lovely if short lasting, but their attractiveness is a bit shallow. They actually have no nectar to offer pollinators, only pollen, so a few insects are either tricked into pollination or some may choose not to visit based on whether they can use the pollen. This, along with their short-lived flowers and their early bloom time when there are few insects out, would be a problem were it not that the flowers can be self pollinating (autogamy). The seeds produced are primarily distributed by ants (myrmecochory). Some believe that without ants dispersing the seeds, the plant would not be very successful.
     Among the various human uses for Bloodroot, the most prominent was as a dye. All parts of the plant have a blood-like sap that can be toxic. This colorful plant juice was used by indigenous tribes for dyeing a variety of things, including as a face/body paint. Some even think the term "redskin" may have partially come from this usage. Some people can have an allergic reaction to the toxic sap however. It is believed that its toxicity led to its aboriginal use as a bug repellent, with insects and ticks having to come in contact with the chemicals on their skins before being able to feed. Colonists felt much safer using it to dye wool.
     The plant's chemical properties made for various medicinal practices as well. It has been utilized especially for blood disorders, menses, during childbirth, and to cause abortions, often due to the belief that its red color somehow signaled these uses (a concept called the Doctrine of Signatures, that a sign was provided on the plant by a higher power as to what the plant could treat). Bloodroot has also been used for rheumatism, as a fever reducer, vomit inducer, cough suppressant, to kill ringworms, rid warts, and to treat fungal infections. The Abnaki people even used it to cause abortions in horses. During the Civil War, the Confederacy listed it as part of their ethnobotanical arsenal for many breathing disorders and to induce vomiting, among other applications. It was officially listed in the U.S. Pharmacopea up until 1926 for its pharmaceutical properties. Once some anti plaque fighting properties were discovered and approved by the American Dental Association in 1983, it even became the main ingredient in Viadent Toothpaste.
    Now few people use Bloodroot for much of anything except to admire its fleeting beauty. In fact, it is easy to overlook except in the early spring when its white flowers make their appearance for the briefest of time. So get out there and enjoy them while they last.

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