Bloodroot is a native erect perennial forb, an early spring flower that dies back in early summer. A small plant, only 3 to 8 inches high, with a single aerial stem (a scape) rising from the underground rhizome.
Leaves: Each plant has a single basal leaf with 5 to 7 lobes and due to the palmate veining it has a wrinkled appearance. The shape varies but somewhat circular to kidney shape is a general pattern. The underside is a much paler color than the top which is light green to grayish-green. The leaf forms a sheath for the flower stem prior to the flower opening.
The inflorescence is a solitary flower at the top of the leafless scape which is usually without hair and takes on a reddish tinge.
Flowers: The petals number 6 to 12, are of unequal size and are white, rarely pink with the total width being 1 to 2 1/3 inches. The white color is contrasted with a number of stamens with white filaments and yellow anthers and in the center a pale green 2-carpellate pistil with a yellow 2-lobed stigma. The sepals (only 2) are light green to lilac, almost as long as the petals, but fall away before the flower is open. In previous years there have been several plants in the Garden that are doubles - - DETAILS HERE. Flowers close at night and on very cloudy days.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a long, thin, 2-valved (chambered) seed capsule which contains a few to many black to orange-red small seeds, which have a fleshy appendage.
Variations: There is considerable variety in the leaf shape and size, the height of the scape and the length of the petals. These are caused by local conditions and botanists have not seen fit to subdivide the species.
Habitat: Bloodroot is a plant of the rich woods, thickets and flood plains, spreading from underground horizontal rhizomes. Soils can be moist to dry. As a spring ephemeral, it needs sunlight prior to the tree canopy leafing out, but shade thereafter. You will find Bloodroot in most parts of the Woodland Garden. Eloise Butler's notes on the plant are given below. During the years Ken Avery was Gardener (1959 to 1986) he reported Bloodroot has bloomed in the Garden as early as April 1 and as late as April 28.
Names: The genus name Sanguinaria, comes from the Latin sanguis meaning 'blood', as in the color of the sap of the Bloodroot's root. An old common name was “red paccoon”; “paccoon” from the Indian word “pak” referring to blood and thus referring to plants like this that were useful in producing dyes. The species name, canadensis, means 'of Canada'. The author name for the plant classification, 'L.', refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparisons: None - S. canadensis is the sole member of the genus in North America and is not confusing with any other plant.
Above and Below: The Bloodroots of early spring with their single leaf, paler color on the underside, curled around the reddish flowering scape, make the plant uniquely recognizable.
Below: - 2nd photo - Some of the uncommon double flower Bloodroots that appeared near the path from the Front Gate to the Shelter as recently as 2000. Former Curator Martha Crone was quite fond of these and sent examples to several friends in Iowa and Minnesota.
Below: The underside of the leaf shows the intricate palmate veining. In the 2nd photo, the numerous stamens rise from the base of the corolla around the pale green 2-carpellate pistil whose yellow 2-lobed stigma is shown in the photo below.
Below: The two sepals are a darker color, almost as long as the petals, but fall away before the flower opens.
Below: 2nd photo - The seed capsule is long and thin, composed on 2 valves.
Notes: Bloodroot is indigenous to the Garden area. Eloise Butler recorded finding it on April 19, 1908. She had in 1907 obtained some plants from within Glenwood Park itself (which surrounded the Garden); in 1910 from a source in South Minneapolis, on April 13, 1912 from Minnehaha Park and again in May 1917; she also obtained plants of this species from the Fort Snelling Reservation on May 6, 1913 and July 24, 1919. 1918 plantings came from Glenwood Park. Martha Crone noted in her log of planting 20 plants in 1934 and seeds in 1944. It has been planted frequently, as recently as 2013. Native to most of Minnesota except for 21 scattered counties in the western section of the state. In North America, Bloodroot is found from the central states and central Canadian provinces eastward.
Eloise Butler wrote in 1911:
"Who does not know the bloodroots - babes in the wood - each closely wrapped in the swaddling blanket of a quaintly fashioned grayish-green leaf? As the leaf unrolls the flower bud is disclosed, en-sheathed in two thin, pale yellowish green sepals, which fall as the snow white corolla expands. The petals, some eight to twelve, are evanescent and will not endure rough handling or a long journey. Hence let us leave them to light up the woodland. The flower passes quickly from infancy to maturity. Presently nothing is left but the seed pod. But the leaf continues to grow lustily. It is an attractive feature with its odd lobation and prominent reddish veins. The red fleshy subterranean stem is the origin of the name bloodroot. The relationship of the bloodroot to the poppy is shown by the two sepals which fall so easily."(Published in the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune, May 7, 1911 Read entire article.)
Lore and Medicinal use: This plant has an extensive history of folk medicine and pharmacological use. While all parts of the plant are poisonous in quantity, the root (a rhizome), which is one to four inches long, is of use for medicinal purposes by trained persons. The use of the dried rhizome was listed in the USP from 1820 to 1926 and in the National Formulary from 1926 to 1965, The rhizome contains alkaloids of the protopine series: sanguinarine, chelerythrine and yellowish salts. It was used to relieve spasms, as a cathartic, an antiseptic, an emetic and used for bronchitis, asthma, croup and laryngitis. Dr. Clapp (Ref.#2) reports in his book A synopsis or Systematic Catalog of the Medicinal Plants of the United States (Collins, Philadelphia, 1852) that he used it for 30 years to cure or relieve pneumonia, emphysema and spasmodic asthma. It was sometimes reported to be a cure for snakebite and the juice was said to work as an insect repellent.
One of the most interesting uses was as a cure for surface cancers. Since both the powdered rhizome and juice from it are extremely caustic, chemically capable of corroding and destroying tissue, this seemed to have the desired effect on surface cancers and fungal growths. Because of the strength of the powders and extracts made from the root, it was used in very small quantities. It is also bitter and acrid. When de-watered and thoroughly dried, the root can by used to make flour. Native Americans had used the plant for similar purposes and the settlers at Jamestown learned from them.
The inner bark of the stem produces a red to dark red dye depending on what other plant it is boiled with. Densmore (Ref. #5) produces two formulas, one of which was particularly effective in dying porcupine quills.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"