Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Bloodroot

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, a wild, white poppy of early spring, is a common perennial of rich, well-drained woods where it usually forms small colonies of plants. As one of the early wildflowers, it faces the hazards of a late frost that will cause its flower petals to fall off. Like other early spring wildflowers, it has white, bowl-shaped, sun-following flowers with reflective petals. The flowers stay warmer than the surrounding air as they reflect visible light onto the flowers' reproductive organs. These tiny solar ovens speed the development of pollen, seeds, and fruits, and aid in the survival of the visiting insects by providing them with a warm microenvironment.

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Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis.

When the plant first emerges, the single silvery-green leaf is wrapped protectively around the flower stalk. As the plant develops, the flower stem raises the flowers above the level of the leaves. At this stage the solitary white flower, with 8 to 10 petals and a golden-orange center, is prominent. The flowers open wide when the sun strikes them and close when evening comes. These flower petals quickly disappear with the slightest breeze. The leaves stay curled around the base of the stem and unfurl to their full width only after the plant is pollinated. The heart-shaped leaves, with 5 to 7 lobes, will continue to grow around the petal-less stem, and by mid-summer will be 3 to 4 inches across.

Once pollinated, the female part of the flower will develop into a slender seedpod called a capsule. Within the capsule are seeds that have a gelatinous crest. Ants are attracted to the gelatin and in collecting the gelatin disseminate the seeds.

The plant has several common names. Bloodroot comes from the orange-red juice in its roots and stem that was used in pioneer days to cure coughs, colds, and skin diseases. Early settlers would put a drop of sap on a lump of sugar for cough medicine, but it had to be taken sparingly, as the roots are slightly poisonous. Native Americans used the plant as a dye for baskets and clothing and for painting their faces and bodies. This gave rise to another common name--Indian paint. It was also known as red puccoon; puccoon came from the Native American word "pak," the term for any red-juiced plant used for staining and dyeing.

To see bloodroot, visit your favorite rich woods during March and April. Some good spots are Beall Woods, Fort Sheridan Nature Preserve, and Lake Argyle State Park.

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology



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