In spite of the weather whiplash we’ve experienced since late February, spring wildflowers are slowly, cautiously beginning to emerge and bloom. One of the first spring blossoms I saw this season was Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).
The sight of this stunning white blossom holding its face up to the sun was especially welcome after a snowy, chilly March.
With each sunny day more flower shoots make their way through their winter blanket of fallen leaves. As Bloodroot emerges, it leads with a flower stem, each one wrapped by a single leaf.
The flowers open as the temperatures warm, advertising their presence to early flying pollinators. The veins in the pure white petals, contrasted with the yellow stamens surrounding the pistil in the center of the flower make a perfect target for foraging pollinators. The stamens are the male reproductive parts, the pistils are the female reproductive parts.
The most likely flower visitors are early flying bees or flies that can tolerate low temperatures.
Each plant species evolves to utilize its energy to maximize the chances of survival and reproduction. Like Hepatica and some other early spring flowers, Bloodroot’s strategy is to produce an enticing floral display whose only reward is pollen; the flowers don’t produce nectar. This works, because pollen is an important food source for many of the insects active at this time of year. Bees consume pollen, and female bees also collect it to feed their larvae. Flies and beetles visit flowers for their nutritious pollen. Not many of the insects that prefer nectar, like butterflies, are active at the time Bloodroot is blooming, so there would be little added benefit in offering it.
As unpredictable as spring weather is, even the hardiest insects may not always be available in the short window of time a Bloodroot flower is open for business. Each flower remains open for about three days, closing at night and on rainy days to protect its pollen when insects are unlikely to be active.
When a Bloodroot flower opens, its stigma, located at the tip of the pistil, is receptive. Pollen must be deposited on the stigma in order for pollination to occur. At this time, the stamens are curved away from the stigma to clear the way for an insect’s access to the receptive stigma, hopefully bringing pollen.
After a few hours, some of the anthers, located at the tips of the stamens, begin to dehisce, or open, making pollen available. The remaining anthers open gradually over the three-day period that Bloodroot flowers are typically open. The continuing separation of the anthers from the stigma helps minimize the likelihood of self-pollination.
If after three days the flower has not been pollinated with the assistance of an insect, the stamens will begin to curve inward toward the center of the flower. The anthers touch the stigma, depositing the pollen. In Bloodroot’s world, it’s better to self-pollinate to ensure reproduction than not to reproduce at all. The flower drops its petals within hours of pollination.
After pollination, the thick, almost succulent leaves that protected the flower stem gradually open, expand, and capture energy from the sun for several more weeks.
Pollinated flowers produce a fruit capsule that develops under the protection of the expanding leaves. The capsule splits open when it’s ripe, making the seeds inside available for dispersal. Like many early spring blooming wildflowers, Bloodroot has evolved to partner with animals, in this case ants, to disperse its seeds. Each seed has a packet of food called an elaiosome attached. The elaiosome’s chemical make-up mimics the nutrition of insects, a preferred food for ants. The ants take the seeds to their homes, where they eat the elaiosome and discard the seed, effectively planting it.
Both the common name, Bloodroot, and the genus, Sanguinaria, refer to the color of the sap found in the plants’ foliage and rhizomes (the plants’ underground parts). This sap contains chemicals with a narcotic effect that Bloodroot produces to protect itself from herbivores. This is a common and highly effective strategy of the Poppy (Paperaceae) family, of which Bloodroot is a member. As a result, Bloodroot does well even where there is serious deer pressure.
Native Americans have used Bloodroot for many medicinal purposes. One of the chemical constituents of Bloodroot, sanguinarine, has also been used commercially in toothpaste and mouthwash to help prevent gingivitis. The red sap is also used as a dye.
Bloodroot can be found in rich, deciduous woods throughout much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Canada. Look for it and other spring wildflowers along a wooded trail near you!
A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by… Ants!
Dutchman’s Breeches and Squirrel Corn
Eastman, John. The Book of Forest and Thicket. 1992.
Gracie, Carol. Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast. 2012.
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism. 2003.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Native American Ethnobotany Database