The following is an article by Tavia Cathcart Brown, our guide and guest speaker for the upcoming Spring Walk on the Brownsboro Trail. Come learn more about the beauty in our own backyard at this event on May 9th!
Spotlight on Spring: Bloodroot
By Tavia Cathcart Brown
Scientific Name: Sanguinaria canadensis
Other common names: Indian Paint, Puccoon, Red Puccoon, Tetterwort (a “tetter” is a skin disease), Red Root, Turmeric, Sweet Slumber (it was used to induce sleep)
Papaveracacea – Poppy Family
When you hear the name Bloodroot, do you imagine it headlining a horror double-feature alongside The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes? You might even wonder if it is akin to the carnivorous Venus Flytrap. It may surprise you to discover that Bloodroot bears the purest snow-white petals, set off by a lemon yellow center of stamens. When seen during the last act of winter, the flower looks like a bright spotlight growing amongst decaying leaves. The well-disguised namesake is from the orange-red juice that “bleeds” when the rhizome is cut.
One of spring’s earliest flowering plants (late March or early April), Bloodroot frequently can be found alone or in a colony in Bernheim’s wooded areas, especially on gentle slopes and in rich forest duff. Rising when the earth is cold or even freezing, Bloodroot sends up a single lobed leaf wrapped like a blanket around the budded stem. This endearing action helps to protect the oncoming flower from spring’s extreme weather tantrums. The mitt-like leaf is rough, veiny, and waxy in texture. The underside has a silvery cast due to a covering of tiny hairs.
When the bud is ready to flower, the stalk pushes the bud just past the leaf so when the flower fully opens, only its face is exposed, with the remaining stalk completely cloaked. The 7 to 12 petals comprise a flower 1 to 3 inches across that is delicate and ephemeral, often lasting no more than a single day. A breeze or a spring shower can often dislodge the petals. After flowering, the palmately lobed leaves (looking much like puzzle-pieces) greatly enlarge. The plant will go dormant by mid to late summer, depending on how much moisture it receives.
Inquisitive naturalists may wonder how such an early bloomer can be pollinated, since it is too early for butterflies, moths, and most beetles. Have you guessed? The seeds are spread by ants! The Bloodroot seeds contain a fleshy organ that attracts the ants. The ants collect the seeds and carry them to their nests. Then, the fleshy sections are consumed, and the residual seed parts become part of the nest debris. Fortunately, for both ant and Bloodroot, the ant nest debris provides a fertile environment for seed germination.
Facts & Folklore
Sanguis is Latin for “blood.” The plant gets this name due to the red resin it produces when the root is cut or bruised. In 1610, it was noted that the Native Americans were already using Bloodroot as a dye for baskets, weapons and implements, and clothing. The potent juice was used as body paint and to stain skin. Some tribes used the marks to indicate clan and identification marks, while other tribes used the sap for ceremonial purposes.
The root contains sanguinarine, a toxic alkaloid that is an anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial agent. It has been used in toothpastes and mouthwashes to help remove plaque and gingivitis (historically, it was used in Colgate’s Viadent brand). Modern day experiments show that sanguinarine may be effective in the treatment of skin cancers (and some small cell carcinomas), but disfigurement may result. Some studies show that when mixed with an infusion oil, this “black tar” targets cancerous epidermal cells without affecting healthy cells. Research is ongoing, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has listed some products containing Bloodroot as being among its “125 Fake Cancer ‘Cures’ Consumers Should Avoid.”
Other historical medicinal uses for Bloodroot include treating coughs, sore throats, and problems with nasal passages; treatment for cramps and as a gastrointestinal aid; a blood purifier; and as a poultice to draw out thorns and slivers or applied to sores on the leg.
Bloodroot is not only a beautiful flower and a poisonous plant, but it wields power in the realm of folklore, too. It was considered a love medicine, much in demand by bachelors! The bachelor would rub the root on the palm of his hand and then gently touch the woman of his choice to attract her attention. As a nice coincidence or perhaps as a convenient tale, Bloodroot was credited as an aphrodisiac.
Native American stories tell us that a decoction of dried root was provided as a beauty aid for “women who are ugly.” If you are ever unlucky enough to behold a dead person, consider that you can burn Bloodroot and use the smoke as a “wash” to help purify your spirit.
Although the brief life of the flower might seem Shakespearean, and though Bloodroot may inspire uses and stories worthy of high drama, there remains the simplest of joys when seeing the first pure white bloom of spring, set against a dark and damp forest floor.
*Use caution when handling any part of the Bloodroot plant, it is poisonous and can cause skin irritation, especially when touching the root.*
Tavia Cathcart Brown
Originally published February 25, 2015. Reprinted with permission.