Bloodroot patch, April 2009
Bloodroot patch, April 2009

The bloodroots around here are already gone, sadly. I saw them for maybe a week, although my handy wildflower field guide assures me they bloom through May. (Lies!) They are lovely. They are also toxic.

Or medicinal. Take your pick.

Some websites advocate the use of bloodroot, so named for its reddish sap, to treat throat infections, bronchial complaints, and skin problems like ringworm and warts; others tell you that bloodroot can scar and that it is toxic when ingested. What I can tell you is that PubMed is not impressed with bloodroot: one study showed tumoricidal effects of bloodroot extract in a lab (good); another compared four patients who self-treated their own skin cancer with bloodroot extracts, all with disastrous effects (from metastasization to severe scarring). So, you know, if you have skin cancer, go to a doctor.

Bloodroot prefers moist hardwood forests and blooms in early spring, starting as a delicate white bud wrapped by a large, lobed, dark green leaf. It is an ant-dispersed plant, like trilliums; ants collect and eat a portion of the bloodroot’s seed, thus moving it through the forest landscape. At least one study has linked its decline both to habitat disruption and invasive ant species: the creation of new forest edges through tree-clearing appears to induce ants to carry the seeds in the wrong direction, and invasive ant species carry the seeds shorter distances than the native ants do.

With a name like “bloodroot” you have to know that the creative types are all over it. Here’s a sample:

Kneeling at Easter to the Season’s First Bloodroot and other poems
by James Baker Hall
for Cia

Eventually one spring enough ground was turned,
a windstorm occurred at the right moment,

the rest we piece together. Even if a human
had been here he could not have seen
what was rising
from the earth

and traveling by cloud east southeast over two ridges,
to a fresh water pond, stagnant–
owned by a man named Connors–

nor could anyone have seen it reappear,
out of the rain, as algae.
No one was here

when the grasses first appeared, or the whales.
No one was here long before that,
a bolt of lightning forked,
the earth was cooling,
one cell became two.


“Kneeling” strikes me as about right; I kneel, too, when the spring ephemerals come back.

There are also books, anthologies and literary magazines named Bloodroot, as well I’m sure as a lot of other poems and stories. Little wonder: bloodroots are beautiful, delicate, and dangerous. I’d recommend you leave them in the ground.

2 thoughts on “Bloodroot

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