Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bloodroot: a native North American wildflower

UPDATE: Mi compadre (aka my friend) Aaron alerted me to a very interesting experimental application of this plant in controlling another plant I blogged about, garlic mustard (see, even I'm learning things while writing this blog!). When bloodroot rhizomes are over-planted very densely where garlic mustard is prevalent (especially in shady areas) it can out-compete it for resources, and gradually it starts to die off. A fantastic idea of using native plant species in environments where they naturally thrive to eradicate invasive weeds. Brilliant!

Species name: Sanguinaria canadensis

Common name: Bloodroot, bloodwort, red puccoon root, pauson

Location: Ontario

Bloodroot is a species of native North American wildflower that grows from Nova Scotia to Ontario, and further south in the United States down to Florida and Mississippi. It flowers usually from March to May when the ground is still quite cold, and can grow in a wide variety of soil types (but preferring sandy soils, as in the first photo).

This plant was originally used in Native American medicine as a treatment for breathing problems and as an emetic. The roots were cut into small pieces, and then steeped in hot water like to make tea. The tea would then be consumed. I wouldn't recommend that today, since we now know that bloodroot is a poisonous plant, and topical application can lead to intense pain and scarring. The dark side of this plant's "medicinal" use today is as on of the USA's "187 cancer 'cures' consumers should avoid". It seems like if a plant produces any kind of effect on the body, someone will try to pass it off as a cure for cancer. For bloodroot's case, the roots have been made into a paste and sold as a cure for skin cancer and breast cancer, leading to massive deformation and pain in both circumstances. The lesson to be learned here is that just because it's "natural" doesn't mean it's good for you!

Today, this plant is still used for its roots, but not in a medicinal sense. The roots really are red, and really do "bleed" like you would expect from its name. This is of great use as a natural red dye for fabrics and plastics or as a paint (but again should not be added to food products because of the danger it poses).

The reproduction of this plant and the way that it relies on animals is one of the most fascinating in the plant kingdom. The fleshy surrounding of the fruit attracts ants, which carry away the seeds into their underground colonies. The ants will feed on the fruit, leaving the seed intact because it has a very tough and thick seed coat. The ants probably feel it's not worth the effort to try to break through the seed coat. Once ants are done with the fruit, they carry the seeds into their "waste rooms" in their colonies to discard of them. This puts the seeds in a nutrient-rich environment, where they will stay until the next spring. They grow out of the soil, and start their life anew. This type of symbiosis with ants for seed dispersal is called myrmecochory.

Despite this incredibly complex association with ants, most of the bloodroot plants you see in one area are not grown from seed. These plants also produce an underground storage tissue called a rhizome (think of ginger; that's a rhizome) from which a new sprout can form and emerge above-ground. Every year the sugars the plant produces in the leaves are shuttled down to the rhizome where they are converted into starch and stored for the next year's growth. Every "patch" of bloodroot in an area are produced from this underground rhizome network, not from seeds. Since the plant is then no longer relying on external inputs for growth (instead breaking that starch back down into sugar and using that to grow), they can grow much earlier in the season than other plants around it.