Tuesday, April 19, 2011


© Dave Spier
[First, a note of caution. Many native woodland wildflowers in New York State are protected by law and it is therefore technically illegal to collect them. (Check your own state regulations before picking or collecting.) Before the late 1700's, when much of western and central New York was almost totally covered with forests and wetlands, there was an abundance of habitat for slow-growing wildflowers. All of that changed with the clearing of land to create agricultural fields plus the draining of bogs to create muckland. A 1974 New York conservation law was designed to protect "any plants considered endangered, threatened, rare or exploitably vulnerable." On state land it prohibits anyone from picking, plucking, severing, removing, damaging with defoliants or herbicides, or carrying away any listed plant. (Did they miss any?) On private land, it requires the owner's permission. At most private nature preserves (like Zurich Bog in Wayne County, NY), all collecting is forbidden.]

This brings us to Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), a member of the Poppy family.  To understand the name of this woodland native, you would need to dig up the entire plant, including the horizontal tuber, but that is illegal -- so we need to take the word of early authors. The scientific genus name, Sanguinaria, comes from the Latin word "sanguis" for blood. The red juice gave the plant several common names including "Indian paint" and "redroot." The Indians called it "puccoon" (or perhaps that is the pioneers' interpretation of their word) and they used the plant medicinally "for swellings, aches, anointing their joints, painting their faces and garments" and an insect repellent. However, the FDA warns that the plant is toxic and should no longer be used under any circumstances.

Bloodroot's single, white flower with its eight (sometimes up to 12) petals quickly fades. A single, lobed leaf grows on a separate stalk from the roots and it continues to produce food to be stored for next spring's spurt of growth before emerging tree leaves make life difficult in the new shade. The showy, white flower has eight to ten petals surrounding the male and female parts, making it possible to self pollinate if there's a shortage of flying insects to carry the pollen. (Since it's one of the earlier woodland wildflowers, that's probably a good policy.) The disk of white petals acts like a solar reflector to concentrate warmth on the yellow stamens and help them ripen. After the seeds ripen, they are supposedly dispersed by ants. Has anyone actually witnessed this locally? If you find of colony of Bloodroots, they are probably clones growing from the rhizome of the original plant.

With the decline in agriculture and the return of many second-growth woodlots, Bloodroot and a few other native wildflowers now seem to be holding their own. The current range of Bloodroot is roughly the eastern 2/3rds of Canada and the U.S.
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