Sunday, March 20, 2016

Bloodroot, An Ephemeral With Many Traits

     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 Sanguinaria (which again refers to the bloody color of its sap).

Bloodroot, or Papoose Flower, in bud

     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.

After only the shortest of drizzles and already the petals are falling off.

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, though some others 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 (this is called Myrmecochory, you can find out more about this in this previous blog: Some believe that without ants dispersing the seeds, the plant would not be very successful. In fact, experiments run by local botany guru Marion Lobstein, showed that Bloodroot seeds who had their elaisomes removed had a much higher germination rate than those who did not. Since the ants remove the elaisomes in order to feed on them (as well as planting the seeds underground and dispersing them), this helps explain their success.

A Bloodroot pod with seeds, showing the elaisome.

     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 by various tribes. It is believed that this toxicity led to its indigenous use as a bug repellent, with insects and ticks thus having to come in contact with the chemicals on their skins before being able to feed. Some people can have an allergic reaction to the toxic sap however. Colonists felt much safer using it to dye wool instead.

The inside of the root of the aptly named Bloodroot, Sanguinaria, with a stain on my finger.

      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 blood-red color somehow signaled these uses (a concept called the Doctrine of Signatures, that a sign was provided on a 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, Southern doctor Francis Porcher was tasked with finding substitute plants to use for items no longer available due to Northern blockades. The Confederacy listed Bloodroot as part of their ethnobotanical arsenal for many breathing disorders and to induce vomiting, among other applications. It was also officially listed in the U.S. Pharmacopea up until 1926 for its pharmaceutical properties. At one point, anti plaque fighting properties were discovered and approved by the American Dental Association in 1983, it even became the main ingredient in Viadent Toothpaste.

Bloodroot flowers up close at their peak

    Now a days, 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.


  1. The information given in this post is awesome and it gives me an idea about the pollination process. Nature has its own ways and it takes care of every living creature.

  2. I recently heard (at a native plant lecture) that the bloodroot pollen is very high quality (high protein) and that the queen bees rely on it. If I understood correctly, the queen bees (these are ground laying bees) come out very early in the season having been sheltered by leaf litter and use the pollen to grow and get ready for the egg laying to come.