Saturday, April 21, 2007

Blood In The Forest

Bloodroot, Sanguinarea canadensis, is one of our loveliest woods wildflowers, with its startlingly white flowers, and poppy-like leaves (sanguinarea resides in the poppy family). Our freakish late freeze in mid-April, seems to have grievously injured these little plants. We had several large patches of bloodroots in our garden, slowly built up from one original plant... and they're all gone; apparently frozen in the ground, so they never emerged.
As mentioned before, I've been volunteer managing a forty acre woodland preserve near here, and last spring there were bloodroots by the thousands; this year 95% of them are gone. Will they return next year... I don't know; I've never seen this happen before. Anyone who doesn't find our recent wild gyrations of weather alarming, is daft.
Bloodroots are fascinating plants... they are monotypic; that is, there is only one species in the genus sanguinarea. The seeds are distributed by ants (which is called myrmecochery); there is a fleshy organ called the eliasome attached to the bloodroot's seeds. The ants are attracted by this attachment, which is richly nutritious, and they carry the whole apparatus off to their underground nest, where the eliasome is consumed by the ant larvae; the inedible seeds are then disposed of in underground waste rooms, where they can germinate and grow new plants. Trilliums and Dutchman's breeches use this same method of seed dispersal.
The sap of bloodroots is bright orange-red and stains the fingertips; I can well remember as a boy, breaking the stems to see it... it is a wonder we weren't burned by the orange fluid, as it contains a toxin (sanguinarine), that is quite damaging to skin. Bloodroot paste is actually available commercially to remove warts and other skin growths... the advertisement is full of customer's accounts of applying the paste to all sorts of "cancers" and dark moles, with wonderous success. Let us just say it's not recommended. As recently as 2005, there was a case in Georgia where nine women were treated by a "healer" for breast cancer, by applying bloodroot paste... severe tissue destruction resulted.
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Don: My guess is that the plants will survive. Even though our weather is freakish, I'm sure that bloodroots have gone through late freezes previously in their evolutionary life - the resiliency of nature is always amazing to me.
Our bloodroots are finally starting to appear. V. interesting info about the ants relationship to the bloodroot and thanks for the word myrmecochery. I read somewhere that native americans supposedly used the juice to paint themselves. I guess if it is as toxic as you say it is, this purported use must have been another falsehood perpetuated by being passed on so many times.
Tracy... I hope you're right. In my whole life, I've never seen the bloodroots en masse not come up. Strange.
Ki... I've wondered the same thing; also I still have my fingers intact after smearing them with juice when a boy.
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