In early spring, the white daisylike flowers of bloodroot often bloom in colonies that are cheerful, welcoming winter’s retreat. Orange-red juice spurts from freshly broken sections of the perennial plant, accounting for its name and the genus name, Sanguinaria.

Origins

The species name, canadensis, designates Canada and the northeastern areas of America, the areas where this plant was first collected. The names of several native herbs return to astute naturalists, who journeyed from Europe in the 1600s and 1700s to find out what they could detect in the “New World.” They often worked for wealthy patrons wishing to collect new specimens.

Also called red puccoon, Indian paint, redroot, or war paint, this native poppy, the only North American species of its genus, favours moist banks and open woodlands which range from Quebec south to Florida and west to Texas and Kansas. This is a strong herb and magnificent wildflower. The white blossoms usually appear before the identifying basal leaves unfurl from March till May.

They generally have eight petals spreading 2 to three inches throughout the blossom, which stands, solitary, over the deeply lobed, veined (seemingly quilted) leaf: Just one palm-shaped leaf; light grey-green under and darker green on top, envelops every spring blossom. After flowering, the leaves expand. By mid-summer the slender green pods stand erect six to ten inches tall with ripening seeds, which are flung about as soon as the ripe pods eventually burst open. Thus, you’ll discover dense clusters of bloodroot-colonies in undisturbed places.

Traditional uses

A widely used medication, this tiny native poppy was known as musquaspenne from the Powhatan Indians in the Virginia Tidewater areas in the early 1600s, and known to a lot of indigenous peoples as puccoon, one of its popular names now. They utilize the bloodroot for swellings, aches, anointing their joints, painting their heads and clothes. In addition, many unique tribes used the origins and coloured juice as love charms.

For generations, ancient physicians studied with the Indians; throughout the 1800s, they frequently called themselves “Indian physicians” because of the increased consciousness of healing plants. They learned that the glowing orange-red sap from the stout, notable bloodroot rhizomes can be caustic, yet it was particularly well used by diverse indigenous peoples. Medicinal uses of those perennial roots from the Indians spanned the health range, treating skin tumours, internal cancers, eczema, fungal growths, warts, and psoriasis. It was also used as an insecticide, as a dye, and as a face paint-even for the lips and gums and teeth. The main juice was used in cough medicines; in remedies for bronchitis, asthma, lung problems, rheumatism, and fevers; as an emetic; and as a digestive stimulant. Prepared as a dried powder, bloodroot was sniffed to deal with nose polyps.

Modern uses

Chemists have identified the isoquinoline alkaloids sanguinarine and berberine, amongst others, and an infusion, sanguinaria, which reveals anticancer actions. They’re also antiseptic and act as local anaesthetics. Development of the industrial product Viadent has brought to the marketplace toothpastes, mouthwashes, and rinses that contain plaque-inhibiting sanguinaria extract. It’s fascinating to consider what future products will come, in part, from our indigenous plants arid indigenous herbalism.

Cautions: Each plant is a complicated”chemical factory” and should be respected as such and approached with care. Bloodroot sap is caustic.

Growth Requirements and propagation

Easily cultivated in the garden, bloodroot is very rewarding because of its beauty and durability. This perennial herb does most of its growth in early spring, when it prospers in sunlight. Otherwise it may grow in shade or sun. Rich, moist, well-drained soil is best, and a thin mulch covering of leaves is greatest in winter.

Bloodroot can be easily propagated from seeds and root division in late summer and fall. Wear gloves. Collect the fresh, ripe seeds in the bloated pods and plant and spread immediately before they dry out. Plant them directly where you want them to grow next year. Cover them with about an inch of humus-enriched compost. Dig up old roots and break or cut off pieces with a bud and roots attached. Plant them at least an inch deep, covering them with topsoil containing humus, well patted down. Top-dress with well-rotted leaf mulch. Plants from rhizome branches may flower the next year; crops from seeds may take three years to blossom. Wash hands well after planting bloodroot.

Companions

American wild ginseng, ginger, purple trillium, hepatica, foamflower, false Solomon’s seal, eastern columbine, and Dutchman’s breeches are favourable companions for bloodroot.