Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) of the Papaveraceae (Poppy) Family occurs in eastern Canada and, in the U.S., from eastern Texas to North Dakota and eastward. In Arkansas, the species occurs primarily in the highlands in the northwestern half of the state, with a few scattered records in the Coastal Plain. Bloodroot, the only species in its genus, is a stemless perennial plant of rich, moist soils in well-drained, deciduous woodlands. Bloodroot is an ephemeral, that is, it thrives in full sun in early spring during its flowering and growing season, but goes dormant with the heat of summer. Plants have knobby, reddish rhizomes with coarse fibrous roots. Leaf height may reach ten inches. Rhizomes and leaves exude a reddish sap when cut. Colonies of bloodroot form from spreading rhizomes as well as from seed. The genus name relates to the Latin word for “bleeding”. Bloodroot is also known as red puccoon.*
Bloodroot is one of the first plants to bloom in late winter/early spring. Single flowers with enclosing red-tinged leaf emerge together. Flowers bloom before the leaves mature. Leaves, after seed capsules have formed, are oval to orbicular with five to eight large, deeply cleft, irregularly rounded lobes along with smaller and less cleft lobes dividing the margins of large lobes. Petioles at leaf blades are deeply inset (i.e., the bases are heart-shaped). All leaf margins, including cleft/inset margins, are rounded to wavy. Upper leaf surface of mature leaves is light green with a bluish tinge while lower surface is whitish-green. Palmate venation and reticulated inter-veins are especially prominent on lower surface of the fleshy leaves. Leaves, three to five inches across, are glabrous (hairless). Four-inch long petioles are round in cross-section. Leaves quickly fade in early to mid-summer, depending on weather and sun conditions.
Flowers, up to two inches across, consist of eight to 16 pure white petals of varying widths and lengths which may overlap. Flowers have two light green sepals that fall off as the buds open. Petals have closely spaced parallel veins. A green, elongated ovary is topped by a short, light yellow stigma. Numerous radiating stamens with prominent, elongated yellow anthers encircle the pistil below the ovary. Petals are shed in one or two days of flower opening, with blooms in a colony lasting about a week.
Flowers are pollinated by small bees and flies feeding on pollen. After fertilization, the supporting stalk for the ovary continues to grow but becomes hidden by the growing leaves. The ovary becomes an elongated, round, green, two-part seed capsule pointed at both ends. Capsules’ stalks are about 3-8 inches long and capsules are about 1-2 inches long. Ten to 16 dark seeds are ejected from dry capsules. Dispersed seeds have an attached external fleshy organ called an “elaiosome”. Seeds may germinate in the duff where they fall from the capsules or may be planted by ants (myrmecochory**) some distance away.
Bloodroot is a nice plant for a garden or for naturalized areas that have deciduous tree shade and moist rich soil. The large, early and showy flowers and large distinctive leaves are very attractive. The plant readily self-seeds in favorable sites and could become too numerous in smaller gardens unless seed capsules are removed shortly after flowers bloom. Plant parts are toxic if ingested, and sap should not be used for body paint due to its escharotic effects (kills skin cells).
* Native Americans used red puccoon (bloodroot) and yellow puccoon (goldenseal) for dyes and treatments for various health issues. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) has yellowish sap.
** Myrmecochory: Word from Greek for “ant” and “dispersal”. For bloodroot and other plants (spring beauty, violets, trillium, etc), an elaiosme (a fleshy structure) is attached to seeds. Ants carry the seeds into their nests where elaiosomes are eaten. Seeds are then moved to waste disposal areas where germination may occur.
Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl