Monday, April 20, 2009
The petals of these lovely wildflowers, a pure bridal white, belie the plant’s rather startling name—bloodroot. You look at the single pristine bloom nodding on the tip of the delicate stem and the notion seems highly unfitting…not just incorrect but somehow demeaning for a plant of such flawless beauty. Nick the stem with a fingernail, however, and a drop of red-orange liquid will quickly appear and run down the slender stalk. And yes, the juice looks remarkably like blood. So much so that I rarely did this even as a kid. Not that I’ve ever been queasy around blood. Rather, I couldn’t reconcile causing such a pretty wildflower to “bleed” for no other reason than facile entertainment. At best it seemed childish, and at worst, cruel. The red juice will easily stain your clothing. It was once used as a strong red dye by Indians and, later, Colonists. Both juice and various parts of the plant were also employed in many ways to treat a variety of aliments. In modern times bloodroot extracts have been used to treat everything from skin cancers to sore throat. A bloodroot extract, sanguinarine, became the main ingredient in a popular toothpaste and mouthwash after it was found to be an excellent plaque reducer. Bloodroot juice can also cause skin irritation in some individuals, rather like poison ivy—though I’ve never had any problems handling and photographing plants. Also, because bloodroot is a member of the poppy family, certain substances within the plant are quite potent—and ingesting too large an amount can prove fatal. Bloodroot are among the earliest of the spring ephemerals to appear around here—typically following close on the heels of hepatica. Along with Dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, and Virginia bluebells, they’re one of the plants I look forward to finding in the just-greening woods when I began poking about in search of morel mushrooms. Morels and bloodroot often seem to grow in close proximity. These pretty wildflowers are indeed ephemerals—coming and going rather quickly. A bloom might last a couple of days; a patch of plants seldom more than a week. Their time is fleeting…but they’re always worth seeking out. For me, it wouldn’t be spring without the beautiful little bloodroot.