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It’s happening, as it always does, too quickly. Every drive down the lane shows something else already gone by as Spring rushes through on its way to summer. Already, these bloodroot photographed a few days ago along the roadside near home have dropped their petals; the oddly-lobed and distinctive sheathing leaf that belongs one per plant will now begin to swell, growing six inches across by the middle of May.

The red-sapped rhizome that gives this plant one of its common names contains some caustic substances (perhaps accounting for the native American use of this plant as a emetic.) They also are said to have used the “blood” as a war paint or skin “tattoo”.

I used to demonstrate this on field trips by digging a bloodroot rhizome, breaking it in two to show the oozing red interior (I once had a student become faint from seeing this gore) and paint a red-orange stripe across my forehead. Very dramatic. Very stupid, I’ve learned since.

The sap contains the toxin sanguinarine. Recently, some ill-advised breast cancer patients used bloodroot sap topically, and developed disfiguring skin lesions.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about bloodroot is a feature it shares with two other very early-blooming plants, Dutchman’s Breeches, and Trillium. They all exhibit myrmecochory and produce elaiosomes.

What? These aren’t familiar words? Don’t you just love botanists for the way they wield Latin and Greek to their advantage and the obfuscation of others?

Very simply, these plants produce a little nutrition treat called an ELAIOSOME attached to their tiny seeds. These are “intentionally” attractive to ants, who gather the seeds, feed the treat to their young, then dispose of the actual living seed in their nutrient rich frass, or waste bin.

In a week or so, I’ll see if I can show you a closeup of a dissected Bloodroot seedpod and enlarged leaf to compare to the tiny leaf wrapped now around just the base of the single flower.

Share this with your friends!

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. i’ll have to keep my eye out for bloodroot now. i didn’t know what it looked like. i love seeing trillium in the spring…one of my favorite spring wildflowers…..

  2. I have never seen that growing, but it sure is pretty. We left spring here in NC and drove north last week, into winter. In just 4 days, some of the trees had budded out and while our forsythia is gone, I got to see a lot of it in MD and NJ and PA. As we drove back home yesterday, the trees were successively greener, the red buds were blooming and we loved seeing all of it!

  3. Thanks for the botanical info, Fred. Very fascinating to me. I majored in Botany but missed that good stuff in my curricculum. Maybe it wasn’t known in 1960.

  4. The bloodroot is beautiful. Makes me miss our place near Asheville. We had big colonies of bloodroot there from the back of the house halfway up the ridgetop. I don’t miss my hay/ash/elm allergy, though. Luckily, I’m not allergic to pine trees!