Friday, April 9, 2010

Bloodroot


Every spring I look for bloodroot on the roadbanks along Joe's Run. It is one of the earliest spring flowers and its white blossoms are large and bright after a long winter. Some years I see it, others I don't. I knew of one place where I could almost always find it, but for the past two years it has not been there.
Wednesday as we drove into town for mulch, I spotted white flowers on the opposite side of the road from where I have found bloodroot before. There were a lot of them. Maybe it wasn't flowers, I thought. Maybe it's just dandelion seedheads. Because these flowers were in a sunny location and I knew bloodroot prefers moist, shady, rich soil. Definitely could not be bloodroot.

But what if...?

"Stop," I told Larry. "Back up." Familiar words in our car--he hears them a lot. "Please?" I added.

The please must have surprised him because he backed up. It was a good ways back that I had seen the flowers and my ruminations about whether they could grow in such a location meant that we'd traveled a few hundred feet down the road. Being a one-lane road between bank and hillside, there are few places to turn around, particularly in this stretch that borders the lake.

But there they were--bloodroot in full flower scattered under the dry remains of last summer's tall wildflowers and weeds. The flowers, a waxy white with yellow centers, were hugged by their leathery, mitt-like leaves. So pretty. Of course I took pictures.

When I got home I wondered about the uses of bloodroot. A friend mentioned that people in her area dig it to sell to root-and-herb dealers. What value did the plant have?

I started with the USDA site.

Hunh.

There I found taxonomic information but nothing about uses. Links on the USDA page led me to Wildflower.org, a website for the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Network. On this site I learned that the plant is considered toxic--specifically, "Warning: POISONOUS PARTS: Rhizome (thickened roots). May be fatal if ingested! Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, faintness, dizziness, dilated pupils, fainting, diarrhea, heart failure. Toxic Principle: Isoquinoline alkaloids."

O-kay. That's pretty direct. So why did some people dig it up for sale? Surely there aren't that many poisoners in the market for bloodroot? (I hope)


Well, there are a few other uses--as a red dye, for instance, as Native Americans used to do. They also used it as an insect repellent, but after reading the above warning, I think I'll stick with commercial products. Early settlers in America put a drop of bloodroot on a lump of maple sugar and used this as a cough medicine (1). Since the plant has known poisonous properties, this is not recommended today.


Native Americans also used the plant to make a tea for rheumatism, asthma and other lung ailments (2). Early New Englanders hung a piece of bloodroot over their beds as a cure for toothache (3), and in Voodoo practices bloodroot was believed to have magical properties to remove a hex, and as a protection for marital accord (4). More recent uses of bloodroot include: as a plaque inhibitor in toothpaste, in mouthwash, and rinses (5).


Given the strong warning against ingesting or otherwise using bloodroot, I think it's best to admire the flower and the strong red juice that will drip from its broken root, and otherwise leave the plant to its own devices.

Some gardeners like to use bloodroot as a groundcover in shade gardens because its fairly large leaves remain green most of the growing season. Collecting the seeds, according to my friend and herbalist Melissa Dennison, can be tricky because the seedpods are like those of touch-me-nots
(also called jewelweed) and burst when you touch them. However, you might be able to gather them by spreading a sheet on the ground under the plants.

I prefer to leave bloodroot in the wild and seek it out each spring when the first wildflowers are in bloom. There is something about the seek-and-find that I enjoy, and the surprise of the beautiful white blossoms of bloodroot is worth the time to stop, back up, and enjoy.

Those interested in Appalachian culture and folklore might want to check out Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers. It is not about wild plants, but rather about the way women in this region view their homes, families and culture. Like the plant, Bloodroot examines a place and a lifestyle that is both beautiful and painful.
Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers, published in 1998 by the University of Kentucky Press. I highly recommend it.

1. Coffey, Timothy. The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers. Houghton Mifflin Company, NY: 1993.

2. Foster, Steven and James A. Duke. A Field Guild to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, NY: 2000.

3. Hatfield, Gabrielle. Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine" Old World and New Traditions. ABC-CLIO: 2003.
4. Bloodroot hubpage. http://hubpages.com/hub/Bloodroot
5. Foster, Steven and James A. Duke. A Field Guild to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, NY: 2000.


There is a book that those interested in Appalachian culture and folklore might want to check out: Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers, published in 1998 by the University of Kentucky Press. I highly recommend it.


5 comments:

Annie said...

those are such pretty flowers!

Granny Sue said...

Yes, I can see why people like them in their wildflower gardens, Annie. They are really pretty.

Tipper said...

I see we've both been thinking of Bloodroot. I'm enjoying all of the poems : )

Granny Sue said...

I'm behind in my reading, Tipper--so much time outside or with the grandchildren this week. I'll need to check out oyur post. I bet you have some things about bloodroot that I don't know.

Twisted Fencepost said...

Beautiful flower. I didn't know it was so toxic. I haven't seen any of those here in SC.

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