Blood in the Valley: Traditional Knowledge and a Compelling Spring Wildflower

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by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

One of my favorite early-spring native wildflowers is bloodroot.  As the phoebe begins to sing and nest, the soil thaws from its icy winter dormancy, and red maple buds puff out, I begin to look for the first signs of bloodroot emerging from its loamy, well-drained soils in nearby forests.  Its delicate, white petals seem a harbinger of more benign days ahead.  The flowers will not open when temperatures are under 8 degrees C (46 degrees F).

Ranging from Nova Scotia south to northern Florida, bloodroot exudes a bright orange-red sap from all its parts when cut, but with the highest concentration in its rhizome.  The first published record of the plant was Captain John Smith’s 1612 report in which he noted that the Virginia Powhatan used the sap as a dye for skin, textiles, and baskets.  As important as bloodroot sap was for coloring, however, it was more significant as a medicine.  Numerous historic records exist to show that the Algonquin, Cherokee, Iroquois, Mohegan, Rappahannock, Shawnee, and others used the plant medicinally for a variety of ailments: asthma, bronchitis, burns, warts, and other maladies.  That sap has had a lengthy, potent history as a medicinal.

At this point, I must state the usual health caveats.  After intensive study in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared bloodroot an unsafe herb despite its historical uses.  Thus, information about its medicinal value is intended herein for educational purposes and not a substitute for the advice of qualified healthcare professionals.  Furthermore, no one should harvest wild flora EVER for consumption (including herbs and fungi) without ample knowledge of their taxonomy, ecology, and natural history.

Bloodroot contains various alkaloids that contribute to the herb’s medicinal properties.  Alkaloids are naturally occurring, bitter-tasting plant compounds often toxic to certain animals.  Examples include caffeine, morphine, nicotine, and – in the case of bloodroot – sanguinarine.

In large doses, sanguinarine can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, dilated pupils, and heart failure.  In smaller doses, however, the alkaloids in bloodroot have showed strong antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties.  Of particular note is the use of bloodroot to treat skin cancers.  In the mid-19th century, a medical doctor named J.W. Fell created a skin cancer remedy from the plant that was tested in Middlesex Hospital in London.

Fell’s techniques were associated with remission, if not actual cures, because of sanguinarine and one other active chemical.  In the 1950s, the American Medical Association brought the tonics and salves based on bloodroot to the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that later ruled the herb was not approved for human consumption.  In 2002, the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine concluded that bloodroot is a corrosive herb that can disfigure permanently, “eating” away healthy as well as cancerous tissue.  Today even naturopathic practitioners generally agree that bloodroot is not a safe alternative to conventional remedies for skin cancer unless its application is under the careful guidance of a qualified, experienced practitioner.  For such a little plant, it has had a very big link with society at-large.

When folks think about medicinal plants, often they imagine exotic flora in faraway tropical locations: Amazonia, the Congo Basin, Borneo, and such.  Too often we forget that native plants here in North America can also have importance as curatives.  In addition to the curing qualities of bloodroot, other local species – chestnut, dogwood, hickory and horsetail, juniper, maiden-hair fern, milkweed, thistle, tulip poplar, willow, and yarrow, to name a small handful – have afforded generation after generation of Native Americans, Europeans, and others with medicinals.  Sadly, much of this indigenous knowledge, both local and exotic, has vanished as community elders age and fewer young apprentices learn from them the ancient art of healing.

In addition to its scientific name, Sanguinaria canadensis, bloodroot has numerous common names throughout its native territory.  I checked various field-guides and floras to find, not surprisingly, that most references list just one or two common names.  Such books are scientific references, focused only on the taxonomic and ecological aspects of plants; thus, the scientific name will suffice.  Again, not surprisingly, I hit the jackpot with nearly two dozen names listed in Daniel Austin’s 2004 book, Florida Ethnobotany.  Ethnobotany is a field of study that steps beyond the taxonomy and ecology to examine the long-term relationship between people and plants.  Bloodroot exemplifies species with scores of ecological, economic, and even aesthetic benefits across many cultures over a long period of time.  Its many common names reflect this multifarious history.

This lovely little wildflower is an early harbinger of spring.  It is also a mighty teacher for those willing to learn its lessons in natural history and in the rise and fall of empires.