Family: Poppy (Papaveraceae)
Height: To 10” (25 cm)
Flowering: March – May
Habitat: Deciduous Woodlands, Along Streams or Shady Borders
Toxicity: Do Not Ingest Without Medical Supervision
The name “Bloodroot” seems almost inappropriate for this snow-white flower. Its name however describes the bright red underground stem and root system. When cut open, the roots ooze or “bleed” a potent red-orange sap, which is said to stain anything it touches. The scientific name Sanguinaria canadensis also refers to Bloodroot’s sap. Sanguinaria (Latin) means bleeding. The plant was believed to be first identified in Canada, giving insight into the species name chosen.
Coon Root, Puccoon, Red Puccoon: Derived from the Virginian Algonquian word
poughkone. It refers to several American plants, including bloodroot, which
produces a red or yellow pigment. Also refers to the use of Bloodroot as a dye.
Indian Paint: Bloodroot’s sap was used by Native Americans as a dye for baskets and clothing. It was also used to decorate weapons and implements. When mixed with animal fat, it was used as a war paint by various tribes. “Indian Paint” stems from these uses for the plant.
Snakebite: Refers to the poisonous characteristics of Bloodroot.
Sweet Slumber, Tetterwort: Names derived from past medicinal uses for the plant. Tetterwort refers to any plant used to treat skin diseases. Bloodroot was once believed to induce sleep, accounting for the name Sweet Slumber.
Bloodroot emerges in early spring. The stem, leaf, and bud all come up together. The bud is protected by the leaf, which is carefully wrapped around what will become the delicate flower.
The blossoms have no nectar, but the large petals and brightly colored centers attract insect pollinators. Bloodroot is typically pollinated by bees, which transfer its pollen to other flowers. Ants then disperse the mature seeds. A large distribution of Bloodroot within a localized area is indicative of the work of one ant colony, which has been gathering and storing seeds for many years.
If the plant blossoms too early in spring when it is still cold, bees will not be available to assist in pollination. Instead, Bloodroot will eject pollen from its sacs in an effort to hit the stigma of another plant. Like many ephemerals, Bloodroot is able to produce seed independent of insect assistance.
Before the FDA established the toxicity of Bloodroot, it was considered a panacea, used to treat anything from minor aches and fevers to rheumatism, scarlet fever, and nose polyps. The red sap which mimics human blood suggested its medicinal value to early nations. Following this reasoning, Algonquian nations used the sap as a blood purifier. Native Americans treated various skin afflictions including ulcers, ringworm, and eczema with a mixture including the rhizomes of the plant. Medicine women also used parts of the plant to treat cramps and induce abortions.
The magical medicinal properties of Bloodroot can be attributed to its production of the alkaloid sanguinarine, which is most abundant in the roots and sap. Sanguinarine is a toxin, which kills cells by blocking transmembrane proteins, specifically sodium-potassium ATPase activity. This has led to the use of the plant in skin cancer treatments. When applied topically to skin surfaces, sanguinarine produces a mass of dead tissue, which leads to the formation of a large scab, called an eschar. The use of sanguinarine derived from Bloodroot as a cancer treatment is currently being studied; its value is still widely debated.
While Bloodroot rhizomes and sap have been cited as anti-inflammatory and anti- microbial agents, it is unsafe to ingest without medical supervision. Bloodroot is and has been used as an emetic, which when consumed in large doses can lead to emesis (one of many adverse side effects resulting from sanguinarine ingestion).
Toothpaste and Mouthwash: In 1983 Vipont Pharmaceuticals marketed a toothpaste and mouth rinse containing sanguinarine, an anti-plaque agent derived from Bloodroot. Though Vipont discontinued the use of sanguinarine in 2001, the FDA has since approved the use of sanguinarine in other herbal toothpastes and mouth washes. Sanguinarine has antibacterial properties, which inhibits plaque buildup preventing periodontal diseases, including gingivitis. Evidence supporting the effectiveness of these herbal toothpastes however is incomplete and inconsistent.
Bloodroot Paste: Bloodroot paste is a controversial topical cream that supposedly treats warts, moles, and other skin tags quickly and effectively.