Common Name: Bloodroot, Indian plant, Indian red paint, Red puccoon, Snakebite, Sweet slumber, Tetterwort – The bright red of the flower’s rhizome is the color of blood, blood red is a passable pleonasm for descriptive purposes. The many other names refer to its use as a dye and as a medicine.
Scientific Name: Sanguinaria canadensis – The Latin word for blood is sanguis and the word for blood-red is sanguineus; the generic name also refers to the bright red of the root (the English words sanguine and sanguinary have the same etymology). It was first noted by botanists in Canada which is reflected in the species name.
Potpourri: The bloodroot is the quintessential spring flower; it is among the first to bloom and it is ephemeral, losing its startlingly white petals of vernal purity in only a few days. It is embraced by distinctively lobed moose-antler leaves that protect the bud against harm in its ascendance, and persist well into the summer months after the flower has succumbed to senescence; the metaphor of a mother protecting her child in a verdant cloak has been suggested. Yellow pollen-bearing stamens arise from the center of the white blossoms like the flame of a torch. However, the most notable attribute of the bloodroot, and that for which it is most appropriately named, is that which is hypogeal and therefore not seen – part of the tumid, rhizomic rootstock that is dyed a salubrious red by the exudate produced by the plant. The metaphor of the bloodroot as the oracle of spring has not escaped the notice of the naturalist or the poet. Theodore Roosevelt said of Sagamore Hill that “early in April there is one hillside near us which glows like a tender flame with the white of the bloodroot.” Madison Julius Cawein, known as the Keats of Kentucky for his ethereal language wrote of the Voices of Nature that:
When bloodroot blooms and trillium flowers
Unclasp their stars to sun and rain
My heart strikes hands with winds and showers
And wanders in the woods again
All living things are imbued with a successful schema for evolutionary success; otherwise they would not be here. The bloodroot is an exceptional example of the extent to which random mutations can result in what would otherwise seem numinous. That this flower is the only member of its genus in the world lends credence to its singularity. One aspect of its adaptations, and in fact the most crucial in survival, is the means of reproduction. Reaching full blossom in early spring is not an especially wise adaptive strategy, as there are few if any pollinators whose numbers may be randomly decimated by poor weather conditions. To make matters worse, bloodroots produce no nectar and therefore provide no sugary scent to draw the necessary insects to do their sexual bidding. They rely solely on subterfuge in proffering the instinctual pollinators with what would appear to be a magnificent banquet of as many as a dozen three inch long cup-shaped white petals around a stand of erect yellow stamens. This apparently works, as the flower is quite prolific. To guard against self-pollination the female pistil at the base of the calyx becomes receptive several days in advance of the male stamen-mounted anthers; the anthers do their part by tilting outward toward the petals and away from the stile and stigma. However, if all else fails and no pollinators are attracted after a period of several days, the anthers straighten to facilitate self-pollination of their selfsame flower. It should be duly noted that sexuality exists to promote diversity for purposes of evolutionary adaptation which is a long term strategy for survival. Self-pollination is a short term tactic.
A fertilized flower produces seeds that must then be dispersed to germinate in order to establish a new plant in a new location. The bloodroot has evolved according to its adaptive habitat to enter into a mutualistic relationship with one of its fellow forest denizens, the ant. The inch long oblong seed pods produce protruding appendages called elaiosomes (from the Greek words for ‘oil’ and ‘body’) that have lipids and proteins and are accordingly sought out by ants for larval nutrition, a mutualistic relationship with the abstruse name myrmecochory (which actually does make sense – the Greek word for ant is myrmēk and the Greek word for dispersal is chorous). Myrmecochory is so successful in seed dispersal that about 3,000 different species worldwide have evolved to attract ants, including violets, trillium and hepaticas. Recent phylogenic analysis has concluded that myrmecochory has evolved independently more than a hundred times, a process called convergent evolution. This should come as no surprise – ants are the perfect vector for the movement of seeds to a well fertilized epigeal bower. It is estimated that there are ten thousand trillion (1016) ants in the world – one million ants for every human and probably a billion for every bloodroot.
The Native Americans autochthonous to the Middle Atlantic States were masters of their environment and how to exploit it in the fulfillment of their subsistence and cultural needs. As hunters, they produced exquisite witch hazel bows, hickory arrow shafts and quartzite knives and as gatherers they accumulated a shaman’s lore of edible and medicinal plants; the bloodroot surely caught their eye, with tribal variations in use according to the randomness of trial and error. The University of Michigan Ethnobotany Database lists 133 separate citations for bloodroot; it is sometimes called Indian Plant. The most prevalent use was also the most obvious; the red fluid exuded from the tumid root produces a superior red dye, and after some pounding and hydrating, an orange or yellow dye as well. The name for the plant in the Algonquian language group was either puccoon or paucon derived from pocan, the indigenous word for blood red. The alternative common name Red Puccoon is a vestigial reminder. While the dyes were used for the defining war paints on the faces and bodies of Native American caricature, they were also used for dying fabrics, baskets, and for ceremonial coloration.
As native plants and animals constituted the Indian pharmacopeia, experimentation by intent or by accident led to the use of bloodroot for a whole range of medicinal applications. For the Abnaki, bloodroot was an abortifacient for both people and horses while the Cherokee used it in small doses as cough medicine. The Iroquois confederation of the six nations in the western New York area had the most extensive applications: a compound infusion of bloodroot was used to induce vomiting and as a treatment for diarrhea, however contradictory that may seem; a decoction of the rhizomes was used to treat stomach ache (especially after a big meal – recalling that the Indian hunter gatherer culture was one of famine alternating with the feast of successful venery) and as a cure for hiccoughs; a poultice of cooked roots was a vulnerary for cuts and wounds; an infusion was taken for sickness contracted from a menstruating girl (an example of one of the misconceptions of primitive cultures); and, finally, it was a panacea, apparently taken for any ailment with a conviction in the placebo effect.
Native American medicines were widely used by early colonists, who struggled equally against the same rigors of living in North America In the millennia that preceded the modern age of pharmaceuticals based on chemistry and clinical trials, natural compounds were the only option. Bloodroot was noted as early as 1612 by Jamestown’s Captain John Smith who recorded that the local Powhatan people called it musquapenne; it became one of the favorites, appearing in the United States Pharmacopeia continuously from 1820 to 1910 as Sanguinaria, its generic name. The United States Dispensary of 1834 provides the following panacean entry for Sanguinaria: “It has been given in typhoid pneumonia, catarrh, pertussis, croup, phthisis (any wasting disease such as tuberculosis), rheumatism, jaundice, hydrothorax and some other afflictions, either as an emetic, nauseant, or alternative, and its virtues are highly praised by many judicious practitioners.” This is at least in part due to William Downey who made bloodroot the subject of his 1803 thesis to satisfy degree requirements of Doctor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In what must have been one of the first instances of experimental evaluation of the efficacy of a drug using human subjects, Downey performed rudimentary clinical trials of both topical and internal applications on both himself and his friends to allow for evaluation based on observation of ameliorative effects with some comparison between dosages at various levels and a control. His findings were that “a portion of the powdered root sprinkled on ulcers” (the external open sore variety) resulted in a diminution of the ulcerated area and an improvement in overall salubrity. Taken internally, it was found to be a prodigious stimulant that would cause vomiting in larger doses; in small doses, however, he found it to be “a general stimulating tonic, as is shown by its increasing the appetite and its action on the arterial system.” By the middle of the 19th Century, Sanguinaria was in general use for everything from skin cancer to whooping cough; the common names Snakebite, Sweet slumber and Tetterwort attest to this (tetter is a skin disease).
The many uses of bloodroot by Native Americans and subsequently by the European settlers was well justified; the plant produces a range of complex compounds that evidently convey some survival benefit of the plant against herbivores and arthropods. That it is a member of the Poppy or Papaveraceae Family makes this all the more interesting. The primary constituents are the alkaloids Sanguinarine, a toxin that kills animal cells, Chelerythrine, noted for its antibacterial actions, and Protopine, an analgesic and antihistamine that is also found in the opium poppy. The complex chemical constituency is consistent with its many purported effects; in low doses it has beneficent effects and in high doses it is lethal. Tincture of bloodroot is quite bitter, a characteristic of all poisonous alkaloids; its use as a treatment for coughs and sore throats required its mixture with sugar as an electuary. In moderate doses it is more potent, prescribed as an emetic to promote vomiting caused by the toxic Sanguinarine and as a narcotic to reduce pain and induce sleep caused by the opioid Protopine. In high doses, however, it is a deadly poison. Medicine of the 20th Century is a bit more circumspect, probably with good reason. Bloodroot with zinc chloride and fluorine was used as a treatment for dental plaque marketed under the trade name Viadent for many years. This practice has recently been called into question due to a possible association with the development of premalignant oral leukoplakia possibly leading to oral cancer. It has also been marketed as a topical treatment for skin cancers that is promoted by those favoring herbal remedies but which is very controversial in the mainstream medical community. It is still a very good dye and a passable cough remedy.