One of the first (and fleeting) wildflowers of spring is Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). In the southern Appalachians, Bloodroot typically blooms from mid-March through April, and is usually found in the loamy soils of deciduous coves and well-drained bottomlands. Desperate to outrun the canopy of spring leaves, it often competes with spring snows and heavy frosts, and there are few sights more poetic or heartening to those who loath the sparse days of winter than a Bloodroot poking out of snow...a defiant rebirth.
The pure white flower of Bloodroot typically has 8-12 petals, but a naturally occurring “double” form exists. These long petals are rather fragile and often fall off with the slightest touch. While the flower can be starkly beautiful, particularly when viewed against the muted backdrop of winter’s leaf litter, it is Bloodroot’s leaf that I find most alluring. The leaves are broadly reniform (kidney shaped) and have rounded lobes. The bottom of the leaf is “glaucus,” which indicates the presence of a natural waxy coating. This coating helps the plant avoid desiccation and may aid in repelling insect attack. (Apples also have a glaucus coating, explaining why when you buff one on your shirt, it turns glossy). As the plant emerges from the ground, its leaf is tightly curled around the stem in perfect symmetry, suggesting cupped or “praying” hands — always surreally angelic to me. After flowering, the leaves grow much larger, jutting out of the ground like elfin flags. This leaf enlargement helps boost photosynthesis, thus fortifying the plant’s rhizome for next year. It appears that Bloodroot is pollinated primarily by bees, and ants help to disperse the seeds.
A member of the Poppy family (Papaveraceae), Bloodroot is also a monotypic genus, meaning that it is the sole plant represented by the genus Sanguinaria. The name Sanguinaria is from the root Sanguis, meaning “blood”. This is in reference to the plant’s fleshy rhizome, which emits a scarlet red juice when cut. The species name of canadensis is common to many plants, and usually refers to it being first collected in Canada. Popular names can vary from the mundane to the outrageous, and Bloodroot has some interesting alternatives: Puccoon, Snakebite, Tetterwort, and Sweet-slumber. The person who first described this plant was none other than the father of modern plant taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, the self-proclaimed “Prince of Botany.”
Utilized by nearly every eastern native American tribe, Bloodroot was culled for medicinal, ceremonial, and dye purposes. Common to all of these uses is the fleshy rhizome’s red alkaloid juice, which is called sanguinarine. Native American medicinal indications for this plant include: sore throat, chest and sinus congestion, asthma, gonorrhea, infected cuts, fevers, and constipation. Consistent with some of these traditional uses, modern research has confirmed sanguinarine to have (experimental) antiseptic, anesthetic, and anti-cancer activity. However, do not attempt to ingest this plant, as it is considered toxic in unrefined forms. For years, a popular toothpaste used sanguinarine as an anti-plaque agent. However, the formula has been recently changed, as it was found that people who regularly used sanguinarine-based compounds were 10 times more likely to develop (often precancerous) oral lesions called Leukoplakia. Despite this unfortunate example, the majority of drugs, both “folk” and pharmaceutical, continue to be plant-based.
Ceremonial uses vary greatly — a few colorful examples: the Ponca would rub the root on the palm of a bachelor as a “love charm”; the Iroquois would concoct a cold infusion of the root for “sickness caught from a menstruating girl” (!), and would use smoke from the plant to “wash” someone who has seen a dead person. The study of botany can keep one intrigued for a lifetime...
May this harbinger of spring soon cast its charms upon you!
Jay Kranyik is an Asheville-based nature photographer and naturalist.