Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sanguinaria canadensis

     Spring is a splendid time of year for many reasons and one of those reasons is spring ephemeral wildflowers.  Southern Illinois is a tremendous place for spring ephemeral wildflowers and each year I check in on my buddies to see how they are doing.
     One of the earliest wildflowers is Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  The odd-looking leaves are usually just barely emerged when the wildflowers bloom and they curl around the stem like a baby clinging to their mother.  While the flowers do not last very long, the leaves persist well into the summer.

     This plant is called Bloodroot because the roots are a deep red color and the stem contains thick reddish colored sap that was used as a dye by indigenous people.  Indeed, when the stem is cut, the sap quickly coagulates like blood does, and the wound begins to heal.  "Sanguinaria" comes from the Latin word "sanguis" which means "blood" and "canadensis" refers to the plant being described in or near Canada.
     This plant is native to North America and it is the only species in the genus Sanguinaria. It is a surprising member of the Papaveraceae, the Poppy family, and like poppy plants, it contains alkaloids closely related to morphine.  In fact, the primary toxin is called sanguinarine.  Although indigenous people made a tea from the roots and even chewed them, they are poisonous and should not be consumed.
     Bloodroot seeds, like many other spring ephemerals, have seeds that are tough and covered with elaiosomes, which are fleshy appendages that ants love.  The ants carry the elaiosome-laden seeds back to their nest where they feed them to the maturing larvae. The seeds themselves are of little use to the ants, and the ants simply dispose of the seeds in the waste area, which includes dead ants and their feces.  The area might not sound pleasant, but it's rich in nutrients and makes a great place for the seeds to germinate.