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Plant Profiles: Sanguinaria canadensis

Sanguinaria canadensis
Sanguinaria canadensis

Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Sanguine area ban a dentist


Spring-blooming perennial

Part to full shade; evenly moist, rich, well-drained soil

Bloodroot is toxic; don't ingest any part of the plant

Hide these gems like Easter eggs throughout the woodland

Bulbous plant

If plants could talků

Frankly, I hadn't given the subject much thought until I started reading about the native East Coast bloodroot and thinking about the parade of humanity it has seen.

Who knows how many thousands of years passed in the forests of Pennsylvania before Sanguinaria canadensis observed its first human face? Whose face was it? Maybe it was that of a little Shawnee boy running barefoot through the woods, unaware that the face paint he couldn't wait to wear came from the blood-red roots of the plants underfoot.

Perhaps the day before, or a century later, it was the face of an elderly Cherokee woman in the forests of North Carolina, gathering those same plants for a decoction to quiet her husband's cough.

What else has S. canadensis seen? The Massachusetts woods crawling with men in white wigs and red coats, carrying muskets instead of baskets; the hills of Virginia, where men in blue and gray uniforms destroyed each other and the forest floor.

Then came the road crews with their Porta-Pottys and front-end loaders, the plant poachers who dug up woodland dwellers by the ton. Pity the downtrodden bloodroots! Do we even want to hear what they might say?

With any luck, it might be this: "All is forgiven." Because despite its modest size, tenderly rounded leaves, and easily shattered flowers, S. canadensis has survived it all -- in our gardens if not in the wild. Besides, there's been plenty of good in those human faces. Witness the wonder expressed by Mrs. William Starr Dana, walking the woods of upstate New York a century ago:

"In early April, the curled-up leaf of the bloodroot, wrapped in its paper bracts, pushes its firm tip through the earth and brown leaves, bearing within its carefully shielded burden, the young erect flower-bud. When the perils of the way are passed and a safe height is reached, this pale, deeply lobed leaf resigns its precious charge and gradually unfolds itself; meanwhile the bud slowly swells into a blossom."

The flower of S. canadensis is, without a doubt, a particularly precious charge, each pristine white blossom the work of up to a dozen straplike petals surrounding a ray of bright yellow stamens. But it's not just its satiny sweetness that makes the bloodroot flower so irresistible: it's also its ephemeral nature. Breathe too heavily and the petals shatter, the moment gone.

The good news is that this member of the poppy family will self-sow to form larger, more satisfying colonies each year (besides, the wonderfully lobed foliage is more than half the plant's charm). The even better news is the cultivar 'Multiplex' (syn. 'Flore Pleno'), a drop-dead-gorgeous double-flowered form with twice the staying power and four times the number of petals (now imagine its price).

'Multiplex' is sterile, though, so to get more for your money you'll need to divide its rootstock when the leaves go dormant in fall. Cut into the juicy red rhizome -- think war paint, cough syrup, love charm, even a plaque-inhibiting agent in toothpaste -- and watch the lifeblood of human history flow.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.