It is always such a treat to see the flowers of Bloodroot opening in our woodlands in the warmth of the spring sun. Photo: Dr. John Hilty
One of the prettiest spring blooming wildflowers I know is Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). As with most spring bloomers it is a woodland native and a perfect addition to any shade garden if you don’t already enjoy this little beauty.
Bloodroot produces unusually shaped basal leaves that expand to 3-5” wide. The whole plant grows to no more than 12” tall. Illinois Wildflowers describes the leaves as being oval-orbicular with 5-9 major and several minor lobes. It is the most unusual and fascinating leaf shape I know. Each leaf continues to unfold and grow to its full size after flowering.
Early in spring each leaf emerges wrapped around a single flower stalk. Five to nine petaled, fragrant flowers open in the sunlight. They will close and be wrapped again in the absence of the sun’s warmth. While each flower lasts only a couple of days, the bloom period for the plant is about 2 weeks. Seed capsules produced by each flower burst open to release seeds that are then distributed by ants via a fleshy appendage on each seed.
The root system of the plant is rhizomatous and attractive colonies expand in good loamy “woodland soils.” When cut, it produces a reddish juice that was used as a dye, insect repellent and war paint by Native Americans. Sanguinaria also has a number of ethnobotanical uses. Information on the Cornell Botanical Gardens website describes other medicinal applications for the roots such as an emetic, a gastrointestinal aid and tuberculosis remedy, and as a topical application to treat cuts, sores, and poison ivy.
It is not frequently browsed by deer or other mammalian herbivores due to the toxic properties of the alkaloids found in the leaves and rhizomes. With its early flowering, Bloodroot pollen supports a variety of bees including honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter bees and others. The horticultural industry has produced a double-flowering selection, but I believe the floral benefit to visiting bees could be lost by its many petals.