Tuesday, April 6, 2010

BLOODROOT

A countless multitude they stood,
A Milky Way within the wood.
White are my dreams, but whiter still,
The bloodroot on the lonely hill…
—Danske Dandridge
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.]

12 comments:

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

I love the simple, stately posture of the Bloodroot. It stands proud, needing no embellishments to underscore its beauty.

Was also 'taken' by your description of times 'following your father' ... sounds like he was an amazing man who taught you much and loved you well ... at least that is what I am imagining.

I'm glad you chose not to pierce the stem of a flower whose time here is so fleeting. And again, in my imaginings, cannot see you doing otherwise.

Kelly said...

Scribe, I loved this post, both your narration and the photo of the beautiful wildflower. I'd like to learn a lot more about wildflowers. My knowledge is sadly lacking.

The Solitary Walker said...

What a gorgeous little flower. We don't find them over here (but there's a place nearby where coltsfoot grows). So pretty and innocent-looking - though I believe it packs a powerful punch of toxicity?

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

Bonnie…

Dad was an amazing man—school teacher, wanderer, Biblical scholar, finish carpenter, builder of fine guitars, musician, crack field botanist, hunter, fisherman, fly tyer, lover of birds and squirrels and all sorts of wildlife. I don't think he ever told a lie in his life or cheated on anything except the speed limit. He was the most honest and decent man I've ever known. On the other hand, he was as independent as a one-eyed mule, quirky, volatile. He took me fishing when I was too young to walk, carrying me atop his shoulders for hours at a time, up a mile or more of stream while he fly fished for smallmouth bass in the pools and riffles. He was just under 6 feet tall, stocky, athletic, with a carpenter's thick, strong wrists, wavy-haired, blue-eyed, handsome with the rugged looks of an old-time movie star of the Buster Crabbe/Johnny Weissmuller cut. He was tough, gentle, difficult, hard to live with sometimes, and had the most logical mind of any man I've ever known. But I never had a moment's doubt that he loved me with all his heart, would always stand behind and support me in anything I choose to do so long as it was right and honorable. A wonderful father…and one of my greatest blessings. I miss him every single day.

I learned a lot from Dad, but unfortunately, when it came to botanical skills, I always took the easy road. If I wanted to know something about a particular tree or plant, or needed an identification, I just asked my father. Dad tried and tried, but I never learned anything for myself. When Dad died in 1983, I knew practically nothing. I could identify birds and animals, fish, reptiles, stars, etc., but I probably knew fewer than a dozen trees and not half that many wildflowers; as to shrubs and weeds and vines, I was even more ignorant. And because I was then taking photos of such stuff—and getting really interested—I was at a total loss. So I had to begin learning…and that I'm still a long ways short of being skillful is quite obvious.

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

Kelly…

I'd guess I have maybe 30-40 books on wildflowers on my shelves, not to mention books on wild herbs, plant lore, etc. But if I had to choose just one book that was not simply an identification guide (for that I like Newcomb's first, or the little book by Bob Henn on Ohio wildflowers, though it only covers some of them most popular plants) I'd get a copy of "The Secrets of Wildflowers" by Jack Sanders. This has more facts, folklore, and history packed in its pages than any other volume I know. A one-book wildflower library…though not a field guide. Plus it's just wonderfully readable. You'll never regret this book.

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

Solitary…

Bloodroot is a member of the poppy family, and like many related plants, has a long list of medicinal/chemical properties. This includes protopine, which is also found in opium. For years, London's Middlesex Hospital employed a treatment for skin cancers using a mix of bloodroot, zinc chloride, flour, and water. In the 1960s a similar concoction was used to treat polyps of the nose and ear. The red juice of bloodrootcan can cause a poison-ivy-like skin reaction in some folks. It's also strong enough that too large a dose can possibly kill a person—though it tastes so awful that an overdose seems impossible. In Colonial times, a few drops of bloodroot juice on a lump of maple sugar was used to treat sore throats and coughs. And, of course, Viadent toothpaste and mouth rinse incorporated bloodroot extract in their formula because of its plaque-fighing abilities.

Still, it's probably best to enjoy this plant visually and forget grazing on it.

Gail said...

HI GRIZZ-

great pictures - great writing :-) and I got a warm feeling because I recalled, vividly, your post last year about the blood-root and that means we have been friends for a while now and I like that. and I plan on that being so for years to come.

Love to you
Gail
peace.......

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

Gail…

Oh, Lord! I didn't check last April's posts…so I guess I've got to the age where I'm repeating myself repeating myself. Probably could have hid my own Easter eggs last Sunday, too.

Hey, far as I'm concerned, once a friend, always a friend. I don't have so many that I need to whittle down the list every so often. And you're most definitely a friend.…

Teri and the cats of Furrydance said...

Pretty flower, lovely poem and as always, your story pulls you in...

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

Teri…

I just happened to find the poem—which seemed perfect. Bloodroot is a lovely flower. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you…

Lorac said...

What a treat to see someone else enjoys them as much as I. As a child I would pick these for my Mom and would paint on my arms and legs with the juice, very much like iodine. Never got a reaction, I think. I got poison ivy a few times!

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

Lorac…

I've gotten their juice on my fingers without a reaction, too…though poison ivy doesn't bother me much, either. If I'd have grown up where bloodroot was available, Lord knows I'd have likely painted my face and arms red for Mom. Sounds exactly like me!