Sunday, March 09, 2008

Bloodroot


In a week or so, after the latest round of 2, 4, 8 inches of snow melt across the Ozark Highlands, spring will descend on the area, ushered in by the exquisite flowering event of bloodroot (Sanguinaria candensis). Found in moist woods, at the foothills of mountains, and in undisturbed wooded tracts, bloodroot is one of the first spring ephemerals to grace the land east of the Rockies. The bloom period is short, lasting for only a few days. The flowers only open up in full sun and they close at night or on cloudy days. They are so ephemeral, in fact, that I've only been able to catch them in bloom once, and it's not from being tied to an office (but for being in New Orleans, between job appointments). However, when I finally did see it (last year on a wildflower walk in the Outer Ozark Border), I recall laughing heartily. An exquisite flower, all around.

The single, stark white bloodroot flower rises out of a single, deeply cut basal leaf. The leaf remains evident on the landscape well into May, almost mocking those who didn't get to see the flower in March or early April. The common name "bloodroot" can be attributed to the blood red sap that courses the veins of the plant. Cut the stem or the leaf, and red sap oozes out. Derived from the root, the red sap was traditionally used for dye (and as an emetic, some say) by native Americans. Highly toxic, it causes blisters to form on the skin if applied directly. The FDA, however, has sanctioned bloodroot's use in mouthwash to fight gingivitis. Herbal practitioners have used it to treat skin problems; speculation holds that it may even hold a cure for some cancers.

But the value! The true value of this plant is in its interesting natural history, not in random ways we can exploit its dwindling populations. The seeds of bloodroot are dispersed by ants. The seeds have an organ called an eliasome, which is a desired ant food source. After the eliasome is eaten, the seeds are stored in the nest, where they rest, protected until germination.

I mention bloodroot now, in early March, so you won't miss it. Bloodroot blooms before even the sedges start greening up. Wintry Ozark Highland landscapes can be punctuated not only by the high pitched "preeps" of spring peepers, the presence of spotted salamander eggs, but by the earliest of the ephemerals, blazing white against an otherwise brown landscape.

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