Botanizing Finds: The Fascinating Bloodroot

Bloodroot in bloom. Photo: Lise Jenkins

THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

I do my botanizing while walking our dog. Puppy isn’t very patient, so I have to be quick about it, but I regularly manage to find interesting plants.

This week, I spotted Sanguinaria canadensis. This North Carolina native is commonly known as bloodroot or red puccoon. I didn’t have to dig it up to examine its signature blood-red roots as it has several above-ground traits that make it easy to identify. This pretty plant employs strategies known to all college students — it moves around with a little help from its friends.

Bloodroot begins to emerge from the leaf litter in March — its immature blooms, tightly wrapped white cocoons, sit atop two leaves clasping its stem. Its many bloom and leaf shape variations cause it to be divided into several subspecies, but its characteristic embracing leaves make it easy to identify.

From March to May, they bloom, producing white petals with bright yellow stamens. The show doesn’t last long, only a day or two. Once it is pollinated by bees or flies, the petals clasp together and green seed pods eventually develop. Then its friends get involved.

Plants cast their children out into the world in the form of a seed. They pack nutrients inside the traveling container so their baby can get a good start in life — think of plant seeds as a baby in a box with its lunch. Bloodroot cleverly employs movers to carry its children on their journey out into the world. Like college kids offering pizza to their friends, bloodroot feeds the moving crew for their efforts.

You can impress your friends by dropping this bit of Latin into your daily conversation —myrmecochory. Translated as “circular dance,” it describes the relationship bloodroot has with the local ants. The ants carry off the bloodroot’s seeds so they can feast on the fleshy structure, the elaiosome (more Latin) that is attached to the seed. Once they’ve finished their meal, they throw the seed out of their nest. It then germinates, and the plant’s cycle of life begins again.

While bloodroot is most often found in the mountains, it can be found in the Piedmont, too. Woodlands covered with leaf litter provide protection for their friends the ants, while the tree canopy provides the ideal moist, part-shade sunlight environment the plants need to thrive.

Bloodroot is a member of the poppy family, whose members are described as (yes, more Latin) lactiferous, meaning they produce a milky or watery fluid. In the case of bloodroot, the plant is filled with a fluid that is dark orange in its above-ground parts and blood-red below ground. Because this fluid is alkaloid, making it taste bitter, animals typically leave the plant alone.

I’m still holding off on cleaning the leaf litter from my garden beds, as it continues to provide cover for the ants and other critters who find refuge there. I’m hoping they will be good neighbors and will help spread bloodroot around my landscape, too.


Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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