One of the earliest wildflowers blooming in Michigan is the bloodroot, (Sanguinaria Canadensis). Other common names include redroot and puccoon. The dainty white flower is an Eastern North American native that blooms from March through April, depending on weather and location. Bloodroot is also cultivated in gardens, especially those that feature native plants.
In the wild bloodroot occurs in moist areas at the edges of woodlands. Bloodroot is sometimes seen on roadside ditch banks and marshy meadows. It’s an ephemeral, meaning that the plant grows and flowers quickly in the spring, and then goes dormant when the heat of summer arrives. It usually is in sun or partial shade when it blooms, but as the trees leaf out the foliage survives in shady locations.
A single white flower appears first in the spring with a leaf folded up along the flower stem. The stems rise 6-10 inches from the ground. The 2 inch wide flowers have 8-10 white petals which may have a pink or lavender tinge. There is a group of yellow stamens in the center. Flowers open in sunlight and close at dark or before rain. Each flower only lasts a day or so. There are cultivated bloodroot varieties that have double flowers. The double flowers last a few days longer than single flowers.
After the flower opens the leaf unfurls, it’s a lobed palmate leaf with the margins scalloped and appears to rise right out of the ground. It has a downy appearance when new. The deep green leaf will grow to 7 inches or more across in good moist soil and will survive until the heat of summer. In the garden the foliage is attractive until it begins to die back.
Bloodroot is pollinated by tiny flies and native bees and is an early source of nectar and pollen. The flowers produce 1 inch pods filled with reddish brown to black round seeds. These are normally hidden by the leaves and the pods burst and spill the seeds before the leaves are gone. Each seed is covered by a white waxy coating called an elaiosome, which is a favored food of ants. Ants carry the seeds to their burrows where they eat off the coating, leaving the seed behind and effectively planting it.
Bloodroot spreads by seed but also by its rhizomatous root. Left alone a few plants will soon spread to a large colony. If you purchase bloodroot you will be sent pieces of the rhizomatous root to plant.
Garden culture of bloodroot
If you wish to grow bloodroot in the garden please purchase it instead of digging wild plants. Many places carry the plants. In the garden bloodroot prefers the shade of deciduous trees and a slightly acidic, light, humus rich soil. It needs to be moist but well drained. It does not require fertilization. Bloodroot is perennial and will persist and spread if conditions are right.
Make sure to mark the spot where you plant bloodroot as it will disappear in mid-summer and gardeners often forget and plant over it or destroy the rhizomes. Be aware that deer will readily eat the plants. Since bloodroot is poisonous (except to deer obviously) keep it away from children and pets.
Herbal use of bloodroot
The name bloodroot arrives because if you break any part of the plant a red sap will ooze out. The sap contains an alkaloid called sanguinarine, which is toxic to animal cells. This alkaloid is concentrated in the root. Handling the plant or roots can cause skin irritation and concentrated sap left on skin can cause chemical burns. The roots of the plant can be used to produce a red dye.
Indigenous people used bloodroot for many herbal preparations, as a body paint and red dye. They had many medicinal uses of the plant but modern medicine cautions against internal use of the plant or its sap as deaths have occurred from its use. Only very experienced herbalists should use bloodroot preparations and then with great caution.
Bloodroot’s taste will quickly cause vomiting, if that is desired and a diluted form was used as an expectorant. It was often used to burn off skin tumors or dead flesh from wounds and to cure ringworm. An herbal remedy for skin cancer is still suggested sometimes but application of bloodroot products to the skin is painful and can cause extreme scarring. In several trials of its effectiveness against skin cancer it was found that the product often failed to kill enough cancer cells and cancer usually re-occurred.
The antibiotic properties of bloodroot did find some use in toothpaste and mouthwash in the last few decades and helped prevent tarter build up. Other uses of the antibacterial properties of bloodroot are being studied.
Bloodroot makes an interesting addition to the deciduous shade garden or a wildflower garden. Why not add some to your garden?
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