In early spring, be on the lookout for the brief but brilliant display of this herbaceous perennial’s snow-white flowers and intriguing leaves. It’s commonly found in Ohio from mid-March to late April in woods, along streams, and in shady ravines. The plant produces a single bloom whose stem is wrapped within a single leaf. The two-inch-wide flower with deep-yellow center is about eight inches tall and has four large and four smaller symmetrically arranged petals, although this can vary. Each flower lasts for a few days before dropping at the merest touch or breeze. The basal leaf, which gradually grows into a large circular- or kidney-shaped leaf with five to seven lobes and a wrinkled appearance, plays the role of protector. Initially, it enwraps and supports the emerging flower stalk. After the flower has died, the leaf provides cover for the developing fruit capsule. Like other spring ephemerals, bloodroot requires spring sunlight and rich, loamy soils with moisture for optimal flowering. In these favorable conditions, bloodroot clumps and spreads by rhizomes to form large colonies. The reddish-orange rhizomes give the plant its common name and also those of bloodwort, Indian paint, and red puccoon, which was taken from the Indian word “pak,” referring to blood.
Cross-pollination by an insect is preferable to self-pollination because it brings new traits to the plant that may be advantageous. Although a bloodroot flower doesn’t produce nectar, it opens wide to create an easy target for early-season bees that depend upon pollen as a food source. If the bees fail to transfer pollen, the bloodroot flower will try to do the job itself. The pollen must be placed onto the centralized pistil, which is surrounded by anther-topped filaments (these structures are called stamens). At first, the stamens curve outward to give insects plenty of room to reach the receptive stigma atop the pistil. Over one or two days, the flower’s anthers gradually open to make pollen available, but the stamens are arranged to keep them separated from the stigma to avoid self-pollination. However, if the flower hasn’t been pollinated by an insect after a couple of days, the stamens curve inward towards the stigma to deposit pollen. The pollinated flower produces a fruit capsule that develops underneath the leaves, which continue to expand to capture energy from the sun. When the capsules ripen and split to expel the seeds, ants carry the seeds and their nutritious appendages called elaiosomes back to their nests. Young ants eat the elaiosomes, and the seeds are left in a discard area rich in nutrients and organic matter for spring germination.
Native habitats include rich woodlands, undisturbed woods, wooded slopes, edges of bluffs, shady ravines, floodplains, and shady banks of rivers. Bloodroot thrives in woodland and shade gardens.
Mary Anne Borge, a freelance naturalist, writer, photographer and educator living in New Jersey has given permission to use her photo, and has published a beautiful article with additional photos and more information on her website The Natural Web. You can find her article here.
Reaches 5-12” tall and up to 10” wide.
Grows in part sun in spring and part to full shade in summer.
Prefers rich, well-drained soils.
Flowers are 1-3” wide with 8-16 white petals; an oval-shaped pistil; yellow, two-lobed stigma; and many stamens with conspicuous yellow anthers. Two green sepals fall off when the flower begins to bloom in early to mid-spring. Flowers give way to long, thin, 2-chambered seed capsules that turn yellow and split open to release the seeds.
Oval-shaped basal leaves are 3-5” long and wide with 5-9 major lobes and several minor lobes with wavy margins. Color is light green with gray-blue tints; underside is whitish green. Petioles are stout and about 4” long.
Bloodroot is a host plant for the larvae of tufted apple-bud moth. Pollen attracts beetles and syrphid flies and honey, bumble, little carpenter, halictid, and andrenid bees. Deer tend not to browse on the leaves.
The acrid sap is an adaptation that bloodroot and other members of the poppy family developed to protect themselves from grazing. The sap contains toxic chemicals that have a narcotic effect upon herbivores.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans and other have used the plant to treat asthma, fevers, lung conditions, and laryngitis.
Native Americans used the red juice of the roots and foliage to make a red dye. The root juice contains sanguinarine, an alkaloid that is used commercially in mouthwash and toothpaste to combat plaque.
Caution: the leaves and roots are toxic.
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