Through much of the spring we have tried to keep posts focused on plants that are blooming at present, highlighting the diversity and succession of wildflowers, especially those in Shakerag Hollow. I am going to depart from that a bit, honing in on a plant that, while having finished flowering for the year, can still be identified by its distinct leaf shape and a few other salient features. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is one of the showier, more well-known, and recognizable of the early Spring wildflowers, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk about it (and show off some of the pictures I have taken).
A member of the Poppy Family, Bloodroot is the first to flower in its family (which also contains the Celandine Poppy and Dutchman’s Breeches), and is one of the most refreshing sites of the early Spring, giving hope and indication of warmer weather and more flowers to come. While serving as harbingers of better times on their way, the flowers are extremely delicate and ephemeral, and soon give way to the solitary leaf that marks its persisting presence amidst the brightening carpet of green seeking to soak up all the sunlight possible before the infilling of the canopy above.
While Bloodroot is widely appreciated from a visual aesthetic standpoint, the features that led to the plant’s name and that have made it a widely sought-out element of the Spring flora are more tactile in nature. Anyone who has ever plucked a leaf from its stem, pulled the stem from its base, or dug up the large root residing under the soil’s surface has more than likely discovered where the name “bloodroot” comes from. Suffering from the injury of vegetative part separated from vegetative part, the plant will “bleed,” emitting an orange-red juice that has been used in a wide variety of ways by different people over the course of centuries of human habitation in this region. As could easily be surmised, the vivid color was useful in dyes, applied to both body and fabrics by Native Americans and European Settlers alike. But beyond this aesthetic use, the really interesting use of the plant comes in the way it was traditionally and widely used medicinally.
While many wildflowers were used to treat a range of ailments, it is hard to imagine a much wider swath of applications that those of the bloodroot. Used by Native Americans to treat skin ailments like ringworm, by Europeans as a cancer treatment, and more generally as a blood purifier, the plant was also used to treat cramps, stop or induce vomiting, induce abortions, or relieve coughs and sore throats. However the traditional uses do not seem to contain the most common modern use–in mouthwashes and toothpastes–fighting plaque and tooth decay.
While used in medicine for centuries, anyone seeking to give the plant a try must be careful. As with most members of the Poppy family, the compounds present in the “blood” of the bloodroot can be toxic in high doses. And as is the case with most wildflowers, it is best to leave these plants well enough alone, allowing the flowers or even just that distinct leaf to be appreciated by future botanists, hikers, or any passerby who may be moved by the plant’s beauty.
While the flowers have since run their course, as you weave your way through the rich cove forests of the area, especially our beloved Shakerag Hollow, take the time to note the single leaves that are reminders of the flowers that were and the centuries of people using the forest, entering into relationships of dependency upon the plants that comprise our regional flora.