by Gary Pendleton
Blood Root Is Tonic for Spring Fever
Judging by the tone and the number of comments I’ve recently overheard about the weather, it seems people are anxious for spring. The need to get out, to feel spring temperatures, breathe spring smells, to dig in the ground and experience other rites of spring are as strong as they get in these parts.
In the woods where soils are rich and loamy, the pale green leaves of bloodroot are inching upward through carpets made of last fall’s leaves. This is bloodroot time, before the budding trees shade the forest floor. It is time for all the early spring-blooming flowers to spread their leaves and take energy from the sun. Hallelujah! Spring is here!
The soil is warm enough to spur the plants to grow. The air is warm enough for ants and flies and other pollinators to play their vital role. In return, the plants give the pollinators food in the form of nectar and pollen. Without this early-season source of food, some species of pollinators might not survive chilly early spring weather. Other plants that bloom later rely on some of the same pollinator species to produce the seeds that ensure continuation of their species. So while the early bloomers get their needs met, they are also serving as links in a seasonal ecological chain.
Bloodroot, Sanquieria canadensis, is one of the very early spring-blooming native flowers, which are known collectively as spring ephemerals. They’re called ephemeral because, in most cases, by early summer the flowers and even the leaves will have decayed back into the soil. They are the wild equivalent of daffodils and crocus.
Bloodroot is in the poppy family. The flower petals are snow white. Can you guess what color the roots are?
“This plant is extremely poisonous” (italics original), says ethnobotanist Dr. James Duke in the Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants. For a plant with biologically active properties, there is often a fine line between what is toxic and what might be medicinal. A number of Native American tribes used bloodroot for a variety of medicinal purposes. The Algonquins used it for heart ailments, the Potowatomi for diphtheria and sore throat and the Delaware to enhance women’s sexual vitality. Captain John Smith wrote that “at night … they set a woman fresh painted with pucoon [bloodroot] and oil, to be his bedfellow.”
Scientists have identified sanquarine as one biologically active compound produced by the plant that seems to have genuine medicinal value. The compound was used as an ingredient in some toothpastes to reduce plaque and to fight gum disease. Sanquarine might also find commercial use in ointments for dissolving warts, according to a Duke University study.
It is questionable whether the compounds found in bloodroot have much commercial potential as medicine. But there is no question that, for those who know to look for it, bloodroot is good medicine: a seasonal symbol of hope and renewal.