Name. These showy, snow-white flowers that carpet the floor of many Minnesota forests in spring hold a secret, and their name offers a clue. Bloodroot refers to the dark red sap that appears to bleed from the plant when its stems, leaves, or roots are broken open. The scientific name also originates from the Latin word sanguis, meaning blood.
Appearance. Each plant consists of a single, fleshy basal leaf that emerges from the ground wrapped tightly around a single flower stalk terminating in a bud. The slightly reddish stalk reaches up to 8 inches in height. As the plant matures, the leaf opens and exposes the flower as it begins to bloom. Flowers are roughly 2 inches in diameter and have 8 to 10 white petals with several gold-colored stamens in the center. The kidney-shaped leaf is bluish-green, with five to nine rounded lobes and a pale underside that is prominently veined. By the time the leaf reaches full maturity the flower will have already wilted. The leaf will persist until August. Fruits are spindle-shaped capsules about 1 inch long, containing 10-15 seeds.
Habitat and Range. Bloodroot is typically found in moist to dry hardwood forests or woodlands. It can also be found on edges of wooded areas, shaded slopes, or flood plains. Its range is nearly statewide except for a few of the westernmost counties where there is little forested habitat. Bloodroot is common in the state and not considered endangered or threatened. It also is fairly common throughout eastern North America, except in Florida.
Life History. One of the first perennial wildflowers to emerge, bloodroot typically blooms for only a few days in March through May, depending on location. The brightly colored stamens attract bees, which transfer the plant's pollen to other flowers although the bees do not receive nectar in return. Like many spring ephemerals, bloodroot can produce seed independent of insect pollinators. If the flowers have not been pollinated due to cold temperatures, rain, or lack of pollinator visitation, the plant can self-pollinate by having both male and female organs on one plant. Ants distribute the mature seeds by carrying them back to their nest and feeding on a fleshy appendage on each seed. Once they've consumed the food, the ants discard the intact seeds in old tunnels. Here the seeds avoid predation by rodents and competition with parent plants, and they have access to essential nutrients present in the underground nests.
Historical and Medicinal. Native Americans used bloodroot sap as a dye, a paint, and a medicine, believing it to relieve a range of conditions. The plant's rhizome contains alkaloids, primarily Sanguinarine, which in medical studies has been shown to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties—but also has toxic properties that warrant further study.
Erika Rowe , DNR botanist