The History of Bloodroot

Overview

The bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is one of the first wildflowers to emerge in the spring, blooming from March to May. It is an ephemeral, meaning that it appears above the ground in the early spring, then flowers, fruits and dies back to the ground all in the space of a couple of months. Bloodroot is in the Papaveraceae family, as is the poppy.

Identification

The white flowers of the bloodroot appear early in the spring, wrapped in a single leaf. Plants reach 6 to 9 inches high. Although the 3-inch blossoms, which have 8 to 12 petals, are dramatically large for a spring wildflower, they only last for one or two days. The leaves are blue-gray in color, 6 to 12 inches across, and scalloped in 5 to 9 uneven lobes. The leaves persist longer than the flowers, but disappear by early summer.

Botany

Bloodroot relies on ants to spread its seeds, a method that botanists call myrmecochory. The large black seeds attract ants through an organ called an elaiosome. The ants carry the seeds to their nests and eat the elaiosomes, leaving the seeds in their nest debris, providing an ideal environment for germination. Bloodroot does not have nectar, but it cleverly tricks pollinators into transporting pollen with its display of bright yellow anthers inside the large white petals.

North American Native

Bloodroot is native to eastern North America, from Nova Scotia to Florida, where it can be found growing in rich woodland soil. The "blood" of the plant is the scarlet juice of the stem and root. Early American gardening books and guidebooks of native plants contained warnings to never pick the flower, because its juices would stain hands and clothing. Today, the bloodroot is on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's list of threatened and endangered species. Shenandoah National Park in Virginia monitors the status of its bloodroot population to prevent illegal poaching.

Historical Uses

The Algonquin tribe called bloodroot puccoon or paucon, which meant "blood red." Among its many uses by the Native Americans, say Marjorie Harris in "Botanica North America," a guide to native plants, was as a skin paint. The Chippewa dug up the roots in the fall and used them to make brilliant red dyes. The Iroquois used the rhizomes of the bloodroot to make an orange or yellow fabric dye. Other tribes used the red juice to decorate baskets. European settlers quickly adopted the use of bloodroot as a dye. In the early years of North American settlement, bloodroot was even imported by the French for the purpose of dyeing wool.

Pharmaceutical Uses

Bloodroot was used by Native Americans to make a tonic and cough medicine. The mashed roots were used on cuts, thorns, sores, or the skin irritation caused by poison ivy. By 1852, the Europeans were marketing extracts of bloodroot as a cough syrup, emetic and narcotic. It became popular in the mid-19th century as a treatment for skin cancers. More recently, it has been used as an ingredient in toothpastes and mouthwashes. Consumed in large quantities, the plant is poisonous.

Keywords: bloodroot history, sanguinaria canadensis history, bloodroot use as a dye, bloodroot use as medicine

About this Author

Gwen Bruno has 28 years of experience as a teacher and librarian, and is now a full-time freelance writer. She holds a bachelor's degree from Augustana College and master's degrees from North Park University and the University of Wisconsin. She writes articles about gardening for DavesGarden.com.