This week, I’m featuring Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) as one of our local wildflowers that begins to bloom at this time.
PLEASE NOTE: New York Protected Status: Exploitably Vulnerable = Native plants likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the State if causal factors continue unchecked. Fragmentation of remaining habitat, contamination of the gene pool, and wild harvesting present ongoing threats to this species.
Sanguis is Latin for “blood.” The plant gets this name due to the red resin it produces when the root is cut or bruised.
Photo Credit: https://i1.wp.com/brownsboroalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/bloodroot-rhizome.jpg
American Indians used the red juice from the underground rhizome (for which the plant’s common name is derived) as a dye for baskets, clothing, and war paint, as well as for insect repellent. Puccoon (another common name for this plant) is an American Indian term for red dye.
Depending on its stage of development, this herbaceous perennial plant is about 3-12″ tall. It produces only basal leaves that are about 3-5″ across. Each of these basal leaves is wrapped around the stalk of a single flower as the flower begins to bloom. The basal leaves continue to unfold to their fullest extent as the flowers wither away. Each basal leaf is oval-orbicular in shape (more or less circular leaf shape in which the width and length are equal, or nearly so) and palmate-reticulately veined (more than one midrib present and all veins are arranged in a network), with 5-9 major lobes and several minor lobes along the undulating margins. The palmate-reticulate venation is fairly prominent and provides the rather succulent leaves with a wrinkly appearance, especially on their lower surfaces. The color of the leaves on the upper surface is light green, sometimes with greyish or bluish tints, while the lower surface is whitish green.
The flowering stalk is smooth, stout, and sometimes slightly reddish, terminating in a single large flower. This stalk is about 3-4″ tall when the flower begins to bloom. The fragile flower develops and rises from the center of its curled leaf and it is about 1½–3″ across, consisting of 8-16 white petals and numerous stamens with prominent yellow anthers. The blooming period lasts about 2 weeks. However, like most members of the Poppy Family, each flower remains in bloom for only 1 or 2 days, producing a fragrant scent. Bloodroot flowers are open during the day and close each night, but a bloom’s opening is controlled by two mechanisms: temperature and sunlight. Flowers do not open when temperatures are under 46°F. As temperatures rise, flowers open earlier and close later; though on cloudy days when the sun is obscured, they will open later and close earlier. Bloodroot flowers are hermaphroditic, with both male and female organs. This makes it possible for the plants to either self-pollinate or be cross-pollinated. The initial female phase lasts 1 to 3 days. Self-pollination cannot occur during this time, because the stamens are positioned to avoid contacting the stigma even when the flower closes at night. If flowers have not been pollinated in the initial 3 days due to cold temperatures, rain, or lack of pollinator visitation, the stamens bend down to contact the stigma and self-pollination occurs.
Across different localities, there are significant variations in this plant, involving such characteristics as the number of petals and size of the flowers, and the appearance of the foliage.
After a short-lived blooming period, each flower is replaced by a two-part seed capsule that is pointed on each end, with a row of 10-15 seeds in each half. The round, red to black seeds ripen by the time the foliage begins to wither. When ripe, the yellowed pods split open to scatter the seeds.
Elongated seed pods are produced (L and LC) which are filled with reddish seeds (RC) that each have a fleshy elaisome (R) that is attractive to ants.
Photo Credit: https://mastergardener.extension.wisc.edu/article/bloodroot-sanguinaria-canadensis/
Bloodroot seeds produce a lipid-rich appendage called an elaiosome, which is a nutritious food source for ants. Ants collect Bloodroot seeds and carry them back to their nest, where they consume the elaiosome and discard the intact and viable seeds in old galleries or refuse tunnels. These refuse areas tend to be high in organic matter, phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen, making them ideal for germinating the discarded Bloodroot seeds. The mutually beneficial relationship between this plant and native ants is known as “myrmecochory” or ant farming. The ants benefit from the nutritious food source, while the seeds that are “planted” in ant nests are safe from predation by rodents, avoid competition with parent plants, and have access to the essential nutrients present in the underground nests.
Ant gathering Bloodroot seed
Photo Credit: http://www.thesanguineroot.com/?p=1
Bloodroot is a magical herb. It is often used in spells for marriage, relationships and carried to attract love. A Cherokee legend says if you carry a small piece of the root, it will ward off evil spirits.
Culinary and Medicinal Uses:
There are no reported edible uses of this plant since it contains toxic alkaloids.
Please note that there are widely varying perspectives as to the safety and effectiveness of using any portion of Bloodroot for medicinal purposes. Apparently, research has not satisfactorily documented either aspect of the use of this plant for any medicinal use due to contradictory and, often, controversial, findings and assertions.
The sap of this plant contains the alkaloid sanguinarine. This alkaloid contributes to its potential medicinal properties, though they can also be poisonous in large doses, causing nausea, vomiting, dizziness or fainting, dilated pupils, and heart failure. The alkaloids in Bloodroot have strong antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. Those properties also inhibit the formation of plaque and reduce gingival inflammation and bleeding; research has shown that this alkaloid is retained in the mouth for long periods after brushing, providing longer resistance to plaque and gingival inflammation. Accordingly, sanguinarine has been used in toothpaste and oral rinses (including a widely used product), but that has largely subsequently been discontinued after additional research suggested a link between sanguinarine and oral cancer. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed, with some controversy, its continued use in herbal toothpastes and mouth washes.
In the mid-19th century at the London Middlesex Hospital, Dr. J. Weldon Fell experimented with the use of Bloodroot to treat skin cancers. Also, ‘black salve’ was originally developed about that same time by an American surgeon, Jesse Fell. Fell had heard of a plant growing on the shores of Lake Superior used by American Indians to treat cancer. He identified it as Sanguinaria canadensis, combining it with zinc chloride to make a cancer salve known as “Fells’ paste.” Since then, other entrepreneurs have developed topical cancer therapies based on these two core ingredients and today’s formulations are known as ‘black salve.’ However, the FDA warns that topically applied products with the above ingredients can destroy the skin and result in permanent disfigurement, tissue necrosis (death of cells in living tissue), and subsequent infection.
From the 1920s up to 1960, Mr. Harry Hoxsey operated a medical practice—with clinics in several States—treating cancer patients with a formula containing Bloodroot and several other herbs. In the 1950s, however, the American Medical Association called Hoxsey’s tonics and salves to the attention of the FDA. Claiming that Hoxsey used herbs not approved for human consumption, the FDA forced him to shut down his clinics. Hoxsey reopened his clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. Most of the herbs in Hoxsey’s formulas, such as Bloodroot, have been found to have antitumor properties in recent scientific research.
Bloodroot blossoms do not have nectar.
The pollen of the flowers attracts various kinds of bees, including Honeybees (Apis mellifera), Bumblebees (e.g., Bombus pennsylvanicus, Bombus fervidus), Small Carpenter Bees, Halictid bees, and Miner Bees (Anthophora abrupta), which serve as the plant’s primary pollinator. Other insects that visit the flowers include Syrphid flies (Sphaerophoria philanthus) and beetles, which feed on the pollen.
Animals do not browse on any portion of this plant because of its bitterness and toxicity.
Where Found Locally: