Monday, April 20, 2009

BEAUTIFUL BLEEDER

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.

10 comments:

Lynne said...

As a child a friend and I dotted our faces with the "blood" sap from these flowers and were covered in a real rash within an hour. I've never touched one since but do look for them in the springtime.

Jain said...

Lovely image!

It's true what you say about their longevity--or lack thereof. Last year's lasted two days, I think. But a cold snap came along after the first flowering this year which put them in a state of suspended animation. They lasted a good two weeks, all told!

I'm so curious about the red juice but can't bring myself to damage one. Maybe when the patch grows larger...

KGMom said...

Well, I have known the name bloodroot. And I have seen photos before--I don't think I have seen bloodroot in the wild. But I never knew the explanation of its name, nor its properties.
It's always fun to learn new things. Thanks to you, this time

Rowan said...

I can't believe you have this beautiful plant growing wild near you. In UK it is an unusual and hard to find garden perennial. I've had it in the past and lost it - though mine was the double form. It's such a delicate, ethereal flower and the fact that it only last a short time adds to it's charm when it is here. Your list of wild flowers would make any English gardener's mouth water:)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Lynne…

I guess you're living proof of what I've always heard and read about bloodroot being an irritant to some. Never me, but then I never freckled my cheeks with the sap. :-)

Of course, when making my camp after dark and not really bothering to pay attention, I have unrolled my sleeping bag amid a patch of poison ivy…also without subsequent irritation, though I wallowed on it all night.

I'm glad your experience didn't put you off the flowers.

Huh…I just thought—wonder how the folks who used bloodroot sap to dye their clothes made out?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

The few I have up the deadend road have been blooming for about a week—not the same flowers, of course.

If you want to learn firsthand about bloodroot sap, try kids. Kids respond straightaway to the name. Show them a patch of blooming bloodroot and they’ll stare at the flowers, then look up at you, generally ask you to repeat the name, glance again at the white blooms, then fix you with that gaze which says—the plant’s name is silly because it makes no sense; you’re mistaken and this isn't bloodroot at all; or most likely, you’re trying to take advantage of their poor defenseless minds by tricking them.

“Where’s the blood?” kids always ask immediately. “Show us the blood!”

So you can then sacrifice one plant stem to their botanical education…or take the high moral road and warn them repeatedly under pain of death not to even think about laying so much as finger on a single flower.

Either way, I promise you'll get to see the sap.

I'd suggest your pinch off a bloom yourself. That way you control the situation and can play the role of big cheese, purveyor of magic—heretofore in their young eyes practically a witch doctor.

If you don't do it for the little buggers, they'll "inadvertently" trip over an upthrust stem…or possibly twenty or thirty. Momentary bouts of clumsiness is an ancient ruse of all youngsters, a sort of serendipitous affliction which, oddly, strikes at the most inopportune moments.

Regardless, your sap curiosity will be satisfied, though your conscience may be a bit bruised.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

This is a really pretty plant, with a lot of interesting history.

I'm sure you'll have it nearby. It often grows along the edges of roadside woodlands. You ought to look it up. It's a lovely little flower.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

We do have a huge number of wildflowers about. I used to do photo classes in North Carolina, in the Smokies, and I think the week's wildflower count there would usually be 300-plus species in bud or bloom.

Here, in SW Ohio, I'd say if you knew where to look, you could do at least half that number. What we lack in a mountainous setting with the handy ability to "stretch" the season and find two months' worth of wildflowers growing at the same time by going higher or lower—we can make up for in environments. Within twenty miles of here there are woodlands, prairie, bog, fen, meadows, old fields, etc. Each hosts any number of different wildflowers.

I'm trying to talk a few bloodroot into growing on my wooded bank below the road (not the stream's bank). I'm hoping they'll take this year.

Jain said...

Ha! I'll have to time a visit from my grandnephew next April. I DO so love to play witch doctor!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

I'm telling you, a kid is the way to go and remain guilt-free (more or less).