Before the woodland trees have opened their leaves to throw shadows upon the forest floor, the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) pushes up through the leaf litter to take advantage of the early spring sun. One of the most beautiful spring wildflowers of our eastern forests, the bloodroot’s ephemeral nature requires us to appreciate its radiance now, before its perfect blossom fades.
Colonies of bloodroot can be found blanketing the ground in rich woodland soils in early spring. Each bloodroot consists of a single flower and a separate, single leaf. The one- to one-and-a-half-inch flower has 8 to 12 immaculate white petals surrounding a cluster of bright yellow stamens. On sunny days the radiant blossom will open wide for all to enjoy, including pollinating bees. It will close again in the evening. Disappointing are the days that are rainy or gray since the bloodroot will not open until the sun returns. Its rounded, deeply lobed leaf is small while the plant is in bloom and protectively wraps around the flower’s stem. The leaf’s pale underside is visible while it clasps the flower in this way. It will continue to grow after the short-lived flower has faded, broadening to the size of a hand before dying back in the summer as the plant becomes dormant.
The only member of the poppy family in the genus Sanguinaria, bloodroot gets its name from the Latin sanguis, which means blood. Its stem and thick root exude a deep orange-red sap when broken. Careful – it stains and can be irritating to the skin. American Indians used this juice not only as a dye for baskets and clothing, but as war paint. And Indian lore tells of young men from the Ponca tribe who would paint the juice onto their hands with the belief that if they shook the hand of the woman they wanted to marry she would agree within five days.