A countless multitude they stood,
A Milky Way within the wood.
White are my dreams, but whiter still,
The bloodroot on the lonely hill…
I've always counted the comely bloodroot among my very favorite wildflowers—even though I'm not particularly fond of most white blooms. But bloodroot is simply too beautiful to ignore. Moreover, I adore the way the single leaf—on a separate stalk—opens and wraps around the bud stalk, like hands clasped in prayer, seeming intent on protecting the delicate blossom. How could anyone not love such a caring and pretty plant?
Bloodroot has long been considered one of the earliest-blooming woodland wildflowers. "It is singular how little warmth is necessary to encourage these…flowers to put forth," wrote New England naturalist John Burroughs, in 1871. "I have found the bloodroot when it was still freezing two or three nights a week…"
When I was a kid, following my father around various Ohio woods on early-spring wildflowering junkets, I also remember bloodroot being among the few larger-sized blooms we were apt to find—along with hepaticas, coltsfoot, and in a few locales, snow trillium. Spring beauties, trout lilies, bluets, and a dozen others always appeared a bit later. Yet for whatever reason, this early blooming characteristic seems to have undergone a bit of change. During the last decade or so I've tended to find bloodroot long after the hepaticas and snow trilliums…in fact, they only began showing up around here last week—and this year (so far) our weather has been unseasonably warm.
So why have the bloodroot changed their ways? Beats me. But I've been out taking my annual look, because bloodroot are one of those spring ephemerals that seem to come and go in a hurry. Individual blooms seldom last more than a couple of days. If you're lucky, a given area might produce blooming bloodroot for a week. Therefore, it's either see them now, or wait until next spring.
Bloodroot is a snow-white wildflower of exceptional beauty. So whence its oddly graphic name? Once or twice, I recall Dad used his thumbnail to prick the flower's reddish stem. Almost immediately a drop of red-orange juice would appear—the plant's namesake "blood." [FYI, I thought about doing the same and taking a photo for this post…but in the end, couldn't bring myself to wound something so lovely for the mere sake of a photograph.]
The red juice of the bloodroot is a powerful dye. It was once used to color handwoven baskets and cloth, and I know of at least one artist who uses it like a natural watercolor. Both plant and juice have a long history in herbal remedies; in more modern times, the juice has been employed in toothpaste as a plaque fighter.
I noticed today the hillside spangled with blooming bloodroot I enjoyed last Friday now has not one white flower. The few bloodroot I have on my own side-yard hill, which were blooming yesterday, have also disappeared, leaving only the distinctive clasped leaf.
So even as a new spring arrives, the bloodroot season draws to a close.
[JUST A NOTE…I'd meant to post this bloodroot piece yesterday, but was foiled by technical difficulties. For whatever reason, my cable connection was kaput a big portion of yesterday and most of today—and of course, along with it my Internet access. We did have a line of severe thunderstorms move through the area last evening right at dusk; but my cable went out long before that. It came back into service for a few minutes early this morning, failed again, and returned sometime while I was out puttering around in the woods with my camera. So for those of you wondering why this usually loquacious riverbank scribe has been silent the past 48 hours (including comment replies), I'm still here, just temporarily muzzled.]