A clue to the nature of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) lies in the reference to “blood” in both its common and scientific names. At first glance, the plant would appear to have little reason to bear these names, except perhaps because it’s bloody beautiful. It stands out all the more because it is one of the earliest bloomers in Eastern North America and bears larger flowers than most other plants in bloom at this time. So why “bloodroot” then? If the root is cut or squeezed, it will exude a (toxic) red juice. That, too, is beautiful in its way.
I decided to feature this plant simply because I’ve been seeing it lately, I have some photos, and it’s pretty. My research, though, sent me in all directions and told me I had made a great choice. Thanks Wikipedia! Also Google! Oh, what times we are living in.
For example, I learned that bloodroot is an example of a plant whose seeds are spread by ants. I was aware of this as a general relationship in nature, but now I know some new five-dollar words related to it. For example, myrmechocory is the proper name for this relationship (and possibly a superb hipster band name). An elaiosome is a bit of protein-filled goodness attached to the seed which attracts the ants and inspires the wee beasties to distribute the seed. What became clear as I perused more and more resources is just how fundamental this relationship is to life the world over.
Then I got into the section on “uses” and the rabbit hole really opened up. The idea that it was used in Native American medicine and art was interesting to consider but unsurprising. Some other listed uses were a bit more eyebrow-raising. An extract from the plant has apparently been used in mouthwash and toothpaste, but has since been linked to pre-cancerous lesions. Then I went on to read that the substance has also been marketed as a treatment for cancer, although FDA disagrees that it is useful for this purpose. Most of the top search results for “bloodroot” seem to be sites debating whether or not it is useful to treat cancer (or other things). Finally, there’s the story of “Pinkard’s Sanguinaria Compound.” It sounds like this was one of those miracle tonics of the early twentieth century that was of course not miraculous at all. I guess the major takeaway is that eating or rubbing this plant all over yourself is probably not advisable.
Bloodroot should be easy to find in damp, wooded areas for the next couple of weeks. It really stands out with its large, white flowers and is easy to identify by both the flower and the unique leaf that sheathes the stem. Often I will see them singly, standing sentry over a wide span of leaf litter. They do also sometimes occur in large clumps, though and it’s quite a spectacle when many are in bloom together.
Maryland Biodiversity Project
Missouri Botanical Garden