Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Focus on...Bloodroot


Bloodroot is a favorite among spring wildflower enthusiasts. The flower's ephemeral nature and early arrival make it easy to love. So let's take a closer look at this jewel of the woodlands and find out a little more about it!

On a warm sunny day in April one of the first bloodroots will open their pure white flowers with bright yellow centers. Composed of 8 to 12 white petals, the flower itself is arranged in what we call radial symmetry. That is, the petals are radiating out from the center of the flower like the spokes on a wheel. The yellow center contains the pistil and stamens all ready for early flying pollinators like flies and native bees. According to Carol Gracie in her wonderful book, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast, the primary pollinators are andrenid bees. You can see picture of them here. Nighttime darkness and cloudy days will cause the flower to close. This helps to protect the flower from early spring elements when conditions are not quite right for those pollinators to be out and about.


Once pollinated, the petals quickly drop off and the seed start to develop. Although cross pollination achieved by insects is ideal, this flower can also self pollinate. If cross pollination has not been achieved after a couple of days then self-pollination takes place.


The single leaf enters the world tightly wrapped around the flower bud. As the flower stalk rises up and the flower begins to bloom the leaf will also unfurl and grow towards the sun. The leaf has much greater staying power than the flower and will persist well into the summer. 


Also, not all bloodroot plants will actually flower each spring. We have many bloodroot plants that only send up a leaf. They may be immature or just resting, as producing a flower takes a lot of energy. It may take some time to manufacture and store enough energy to produce one of these gorgeous flowers. 


Either after the flower blooms or there is just a leaf, it fans out and has a distinctive shape. Some liken it to Batman with his cape spread out. What do you think?


Here is an interesting specimen. This plant only developed 4 petals.


A couple of years ago, we received a special cultivar of Bloodroot called 'Multiplex'. This type of bloodroot consists of numerous petals. All these petals have been converted from the stamens and pistils. So, obviously this particular plant cannot produce seeds. There are no reproductive organs! It as been cloned within the horticulture industry. Interestingly, this variant was originally found in Ohio in 1916, and being the only one, all 'Multiplex' plants sold today are divisions from that original plant! Wow!


So the big question remains, why is it called Bloodroot??


The sap from this plant is a bright red color. This sap has been used as a dye by Native Americans and early colonists. There is a long history of medicinal uses by Native Americans as well. In the 1990s scientists discovered the alkaloid, sanguinarine within the sap. This substance was widely used in toothpastes and mouthwashes as an anti-plaque substance until some bad side effects were known.

So, as we are a Nature Preserve I don't want to intentionally injure on of our bloodroot plants, so here is a link to a photo of the sap on bugguide.net.

I had help from a couple of great sources for this post:

Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast by Carol Gracie - you can view her blog here
and
The Book of Forest and Thicket by John Eastman


3 comments:

  1. I live in southeastern Michigan and have not seen a single bloodroot this season--I usually see a lot. Has this been a poor season (maybe the severe winter or some other factor is to blame)?

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    1. Good question! I would guess some other factor is at work. Native plants are adapted to our climates wherever we live. Do you have a local naturalist at a nearby park or preserve that can provide some insight?

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