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Wednesday, 28 March 2007 00:00

The storied bloodroot

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Bloodroot is surely one of most widely admired wildflowers in the eastern United States. Walk now through any rocky, deciduous woodland in Western North Carolina and you’ll likely encounter the plant in all its glory. Notice how the lobes of the kidney-shaped leaf encircle the fragile stem even after the flower has blossomed. This is a structural mechanism that protects the stem and flower during times of high wind, heavy rain, or falling debris.

 

The leaf also has the ability to tilt from a horizontal to a vertical position in order to best capture energy-giving sunlight. After the flower has withered and the canopy closes in overhead, the leaves expand to become more round in shape and much larger. Leaves as large as 12 inches across are sometimes encountered. This habit allows the plant to continue processing sunlight in an effective manner even when growing in shaded conditions.

Bloodroot displays combinations of color and symmetry that are aesthetically pleasing. The light green leaf perfectly complements the pearly-white petals and golden-yellow stamens. Notice how the number of stamens (16 to 24) is almost always exactly twice that of the petals (8 to 12).

Bloodroot blossoms do not have nectar. Their colors, however, are so attractive that insects visit them anyhow on the mistaken assumption that such a showy flower will surely provide sustenance. In addition to accomplishing cross-fertilization via insect deception, bloodroot’s male stamens form a tight ring around the female pistil so that pollen ejected from the anthers can hit the stigma, resulting in self-fertilization.

The first part of its scientific name (Sanguinaria canadensis) means “bleeding,” in reference to the peculiar red juice that oozes from the rootstock when broken. (Other members of the Poppy Family also produce this acrid latex, which contains various alkaloids.) American Indians used the juice medicinally and for painting their bodies for war or ceremonial occasions, and the Cherokees still use bloodroot to dye their basket splints a vivid reddish-orange color. The early pioneers used the latex to dye cloth, particularly wool, with alum applied as a mordant or stabilizing agent.

Be careful when handling the plant. The juice can cause an allergic reaction similar to poison ivy.

The plant has a long-standing medicinal history, being entered in the U.S. Pharmacopea as early as 1820 and remaining in the National Formulary through 1965. It was classified as a stimulating expectorant, emetic, tonic, and salve. Rural herb doctors to this day make a paste of the root that they apply with a covering plaster to sore spots for 24 hours. When you take the plaster off, it supposedly “takes the sore out.” The plant also has a reputation for “helping nature”; that is, as an aphrodisiac.

Recent developments in the bloodroot story are studies of possible anti-cancer activity and its use as a mouth rinse or in toothpaste to combat dental plaque. According to John K. Crellin and Jane Philpott in Herbal Medicine Past and Present (Duke Univ. Press, 1989), there may be “some justification” for its long-standing, anti-cancer reputation in regard to “chemosurgical techniques” such as the application of “a paste containing bloodroot (and other ingredients) ... after removal of, for example, basal and squamous cell carcinomas from the face.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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