2012 Plant Of The Year | Sanguinaria canadensis
The members of the Georgia Native Plant Society have chosen bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) as our Plant of the Year for 2012. This woodland perennial is a member of the Papaveraceae (Poppy) family and is known as a spring ephemeral because its flowers have a life span of only a few days. Before it even blooms, bloodroot is quite a sight when it pushes through the leaf litter to emerge in late winter or early spring. Each flower stalk is cloaked with its own grayish-green, beautifully veined leaf, which unfurls as the flower opens. The flowers are typically 2 inches across, with 8 to 16 pure white (sometimes tinged with pink) petals surrounding a central tuft of golden yellow stamens. They open in sunlight when the temperature is higher than 46 degrees Fahrenheit and close when darkness begins to fall. After a few days of exquisite beauty, the petals will fall to the ground. Then the seed pod begins to develop and bloodroot’s distinctive scalloped leaf will continue to grow, eventually attaining a size of up to 10 inches across and 12 to 14 inches in height. The leaves can persist into late summer if there is sufficient soil moisture. If the soil is dry, the leaves will simply go dormant earlier.
When bloodroot flowers are in bloom, small bees, ants, wasps, and beetles are pollinators that visit the flowers for nectar. If the flowers are not pollinated in three days, the stamens will bend down to touch the stigma and self-pollination occurs. Our native ants have a mutually beneficial relationship called myrmecochory with many plants, including bloodroot, in which ants eat a part of the seed and disperse the seeds in the process. The ripe seeds have an appendage, high in fat and sugar, called an elaiosome. The fat and sugar are nutritious food for the ants, so they carry the seeds back to their colony using the eliasome as a handle. After the ants have eaten the eliasome, they dispose of the seed in their waste tunnels. The waste tunnels are filled with rich organic matter, so the seeds are safe from seed eating creatures and a new bloodroot plant will grow in a new location.
The common name bloodroot and scientific name Sanguinaria (“sanguis” means blood in Latin) come from the blood-red sap that is found in all parts of the plant, especially in the thickened roots called rhizomes. Native Americans used bloodroot sap as a dye for baskets and clothing, mixed it with animal fat for use as body paint, and used it as a remedy for various ailments.
In some tribes single men rubbed the sap on their hands and would then find a way to shake hands with the girl of their desire. It was believed that after several days of this the girl would be ready to marry the man. In more recent times the sap was found to contain the poison alkaloid, sanguinarine. Sanguinarine is toxic if taken internally. Just to be safe, it’s probably a good idea to wash your hands after handling bloodroot rhizomes and take care not to get any of the sap in an eye or in your mouth.
Bloodroot is best grown in lightly acidic woodland conditions with rich, moist, well-drained soils in partial to full shade. Under such conditions it will spread over the years to form large colonies that are spectacular in flower and impressive as a ground cover after the flowers are gone. Bloodroot rhizomes are brittle, but are easier to work with in the fall when the weather is cooler. When planting bloodroot, choose a location with good drainage and amend the soil with lots of compost or other organic matter. Place 3″ to 4″ sections of the rhizomes just below the surface of the soil. Avoid heavy mulch; normal leaf litter that collects under deciduous trees is what they do best in. Plant bloodroot at the edges of woods or close to a path so you’ll be able to see when the flowers start opening. The white flowers look wonderful planted in drifts. Companion plants might include spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) and liverleaf (Hepatica americana) along with other early spring blooming woodland wildflowers.
Bloodroot’s early and fleeting beauty is all the more reasons to use this lovely native woodland plant.
Prepared by Denise Hartline, for the Georgia Native Plant Society.