Thanks to Covid-19 I am not out as much as usual. Like everyone else, I am trying to do my part with social distancing. However, I did notice last week that the bloodroot were starting to bloom in the sunny areas of the preserve. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is one of the most common of the spring ephemerals seen in the preserve, and one of the most photographed by me. As will be discussed below they are toxic, and so aren’t much browsed by deer, which accounts for their abundance. They are in the poppy family. Their closest relative in the preserve is greater celandine, which is not native, while bloodroot is a native wildflower. Click here for a discussion and comparison.

Bloodroot typically emerges in late March or April, depending on weather. The flower appears before the leaf unfolds. It has eight petals which appear like a sunburst in the fully opened flower. However, they close at night and open again with the morning light. I prefer to photograph them partially opened when they appear more delicate. When the leaf unfolds it has an irregular shape similar to greater celandine.

Bloodroot is so named because the root, if ruptured, exudes a red, toxic sap. Native Americans used the sap for dying baskets and for skin decoration. The toxicity comes from the production of benzylisoquinoline alkaloids, particulary sanguinarine. Being in the poppy family, sanguinarine shares a common chemical precursor with opioids, which are not produced in bloodroot. Due to the toxicity, deer avoid bloodroot, although apparently may occasionally try to eat it in early spring. While sanguinarine has been used in herbal medicine, this is ill-advised because it is in fact quite toxic.

Bloodroot is another example of a plant which engages in myrmecochory, where the seed produces an elaiosome which attracts ants to disperse it. See the post on greater celandine for a discussion.

Due to deer browsing, the Pennypack Preserve is not the best place to observe wildflowers. But the bloodroot, and later the Greek Valerian (Jacob’s Ladder) and phlox are welcome harbingers of spring.