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Bloodroot's place in the wild, our gardens and the world of medicine
Sanguinaria canadensis - one of our native ephemerals
Whoever first happened upon these little creatures in the woods must have been charmed by their demure comportment. They remind me of what I look like after I’ve plunged into the cold pools at the Nordik spa on a winter’s day, hurrying to wrap my terry towel around me.
These comical beauties are known as bloodroot or, by their botanical name, Sanguinaria canadensis — sanguinaria is from the root ‘sanguin(e)’ meaning “of a blood red colour” which references the red sap in their tuberous roots.
Well before the plant was documented by Europeans in the 1600s, “bloodroot” was known as “poughkone” or “puccoon” by the indigenous tribes of eastern North America, including the Algonquin, Iroquois and Sioux, among others. The red latex in the tubers was used as a skin dye, which had the added benefit of attracting the ladies, but also to treat colds and congestion. The Ojibway of Wisconsin used it to treat sore throats, while others used it in small doses to stop vomiting, and in larger doses as an emetic. Some native peoples used it to treat abdominal cramps, while the Malachite and Cherokee used it to calm and shrink hemorrhoids. Women used it to relieve menstrual cramps while older people used it to treat rheumatism. The tubers were also used topically to treat wounds (axe injuries and burns, mainly), and this antibacterial quality also meant it was used to prevent infection from things like gangrene and other necrotizing illnesses.
Leave it to the European settlers and the stiff-shirted physicians to do their own studies with Sanguinaria canadensis, which had been given that name by the French florist, Pierre Morin, in 1651. In 1803, William Downey, in an effort to get a leg-up in his doctoral dissertation before receiving a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, enlisted the help of the renowned botanist William Bartram. He mixed some powdered bloodroot tuber with water and gave it to Bartram to drink after he’d eaten breakfast. Bartram was by then 64 years old and had already completed his life’s work chronicling his own botanical, ornithological and naturalist travels from Georgia south through Florida in the 1770s. You’d think he would have known better. This is what happened:
In fifteen minutes a slight nausea came on with a burning at the stomach; forty, he complained of a head-ach (sic), the nausea, at intervals, much more violent; sixty, he was vomited twice, the motions were pretty strong.
Thankfully, Bartram didn’t seem to have any sustained ill effects from taking this strong concoction and lived on to a respectable age of 84 — until he ruptured a blood vessel while on a walkabout in his garden, trying to dislodge a piece of bread that had accompanied some cheese after dinner. He died under a pear tree in the same garden.
In 1753, with the publication of his Species Plantarum, Carl Linnaeus firmed up this plant’s taxonomy by consolidating several species into a single one, Sanguinea canadensis — hence bloodroot is a single species genus. Then the Turkish eccentric, botanist and natural historian by the name of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, a self-trained polymath who was shunned and made fun of by his contemporaries, identified several varieties of the species in 1828: Parviflora, Cespitosa, Reniformis, Repens, Multipetala (double petals) and Stenopetala (narrow linear petals). The form Multipetala is likely the same as the naturally occurring variety we know today by the name of Sanguinaria canadensis var. multiplex (or ‘Multiplex’).
In the spring garden, bloodroot is a welcome sight. Although its flower blooms for a few days sometime between March and May, the unusual leaves stretch out and reach a height of between 15 and 30 centimetres (6-12 inches). But with the heat of mid-summer and certainly by August, the leaves dry up and fall to the ground, leaving the plant dormant until the following spring.
Bloodroot flowers appear to be sun worshippers, and indeed, because they bloom so early in the woodland, there is no shade from deciduous trees so they do soak up the sun. Blooming continues for just a few days when the bright white petals and golden stamens attract bees and this is how they are pollinated. But wait. Since the weather can still be chilled when these spring beauties bloom, bees may not yet be around so they have figured out a way to pollinate themselves. If conditions have not resulted in a bee visit, the stamens bend down and come into contact with the stigma, thus self-pollinating.
Seedpods are produced from May through July, and when they open, about 50 seeds are released. These seeds have a fatty attachment called elaiosome that is very attractive as a food source for ants and it is they who collect the seed and take it back to their nests. Not only does this help distribute the plant, but studies have suggested that after elaiosome removal, the seed has an improved germination rate.
Go figure. These ants are under threat from the introduced red fire ant. This clunky, militarized ant not only attacks our native ants who have perfected this symbiotic relationship, but also lack the finesse needed to eat the elaiosome without harming the seed, and often make matters worse by abandoning the seed in less than hospitable places to grow.
As Bartram’s experience shows us, even plants used medicinally can have a toxic effect if given carelessly, without adequate study or in high doses. Bloodroot has been touted as not only an inflammatory and antibacterial agent, but also as a cancer cure. The alkaloids sanguinarine and chelerythrine found mainly in bloodroot tubers have been shown to have many therapeutic qualities, and the plant has been embraced by homeopaths, cardiovascular researchers, infectious disease specialists, those studying aquaculture, veterinary science and many others. Today they are being used as an additive in agricultural and aquacultural feed, in an effort to counteract gastrointestinal pathogens without relying on over-used antibiotics.
The connection between bloodroot and the treatment of certain cancers is fraught with a lack of clinical data and the promise of an easy cure. The authors of this comprehensive article (of which I’ve drawn much of my research) in the August 2016 edition of the International Journal of Molecular Sciences speak to the public’s easy gullibility when it comes to botanical treatments and so-called ‘cures’. A product called ‘black salve’, made from the alkaloids of the bloodroot tuber, is being sold as a treatment for various forms of skin cancer. Sadly, it appears not to be the panacea people had hoped for but despite that, these authors suggest that there may be a place for bloodroot alkaloids in the treatment of cancer, but that safety should be the first and primary concern.