What a Difference a Week Makes

We discover a new world every time we see the earth again after it has been covered for a season with snow.

~Henry David Thoreau

This past week started with one  of those North Carolina spring conundrums – a snow storm! I have been working on some fact sheets on spring ephemerals, those spring wildflowers that have a very short growth period (less than 2 months usually) in the spring. These are forest dwellers that must take advantage of the short period of year when temperatures are warm enough and sunlight sufficient enough on the forest floor to grow, reproduce, and store enough food in their root systems for next year’s growth.

One of the plants usually listed in this category (although, technically, it probably isn’t a true spring ephemeral since its leaves linger for a few months) is one of my favorites – bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis.

bloodroot when it first emerges from rhizome

Bloodroot leaf curled around the flower bud to protect it (click on photos to enlarge)

Like many other early spring wildflowers, bloodroot has adaptations to protect its delicate parts from the vagaries of a temperate forest spring. The tough leaf embraces the more delicate flower bud and petiole as it emerges from the ground, undoubtedly providing some protection from the cold.

bloodroot with extended flower stalk

Flowers quickly extend beyond the protective leaf sheath

The leaves clasp the extending petiole like a hand holding a bouquet.

bloodroot flower in snow

A bloodroot flower bud peeking above the recent snow

I enjoy following the progress of emerging flowers on my short yard tours before or after work, but last Monday, the whole scene changed in an instant. A March snow covered them all in an icy blanket. Some were buried, others poked their flowers above the crust of snow. You can see the leaf curled around the petiole in the photo above.

bloodroot flower a week after snow 1

That same flower, almost a week later

And then, true to the whims of March in North Carolina, the snow melted. The typical spring storm – here one day, gone the next. The flowers responded quickly, opening up within a day or two.

bloodroot flower in late afternoon as it closes for evening

The flowers close for the evening

And now, they are in their brief, but predictable, routine…the flowers close each evening and on cloudy days to protect their pollen when bees and flies are not active. The leaf will unfurl as the flower stalk extends upward, and the flower will be open for just a few days, before the petals fall off and the seed pod begins to grow. You really have to make time for these short-lived plants to appreciate them. It all comes and goes so fast…and I hear there may be more snow on the way later this week. I better go out and admire them this afternoon, just in case.



One of the most attractive things about the flowers is their beautiful reserve.

~ Henry David Thoreau

Bloodroot flowers wrapped in its leaf

Emerging Bloodroot flower wrapped in its leaf (click photos to enlarge)

The beautiful, pure white petals of Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, are almost finished now. Their time is brief, only a few days for each flower. They emerge in early Spring, each flower bud wrapped in the protection of a single leaf.

Bloodroot flower about to open

Bloodroot flower partially open

On a very cloudy or rainy day, or during a late cold snap like we had last week, the flowers remain closed.

Bloodroot flower

Fully open flower

But let the sun shine and temperatures warm, and they open to reveal their intense white, complimented by the bright yellow of the stamens and pollen. The flowers produce no nectar, but are occasionally visited by pollen gathering bees, or by other insects fooled by the showy display in an otherwise often flower-poor landscape this time of year. If the flowers are not pollinated in a couple of days, the anthers bend towards the stigma, ensuring self pollination, probably a good hedge for a plant that blooms early in the year when insect pollinators may be hard to come by.

Clump of Bloodroot flowers

Clump of Bloodroot flowers

Several stems may arise from a single rhizome, leading to small clumps of the brilliant white flowers.

Red root of Bloodroot

Red root of Bloodroot

And it is the rhizome that gives this plant its unusual name, Bloodroot. This is the only species in the genus, Sanguinaria, and it is a member of the poppy family of plants. The word originates form the Latin, sanguis, which means blood. If you dig down to find one of the roots, you can see why the plant is so named, the roots are indeed a blood red in appearance.

Cut red root of Bloodroot

A cut in the root causes it to “bleed”

Cut into the root and it bleeds a red fluid. The red juice was used by many tribes of Native Americans as a red dye and body paint. It has also been used for various medicinal purposes from a cough suppressant to a treatment for skin ailments. If I am not mistaken, I remember my grandmother used a poultice that contained Bloodroot, for a skin lesion on her leg. The active ingredient, sanguinarine, is a toxic alkaloid that can kill animal cells. It is being studied for potential cancer treatment, although it can also induce oral cancers if taken internally. Ironically, it is used commercially in low doses as a dental hygiene additive for fighting bacteria and plaque.

Bloodroot leaf cut to show red dropslets

Bloodroot leaf cut to show red droplets

All parts of the plant contain these compounds and if you gently cut a leaf, it appears to bleed an orange-red blood form the severed veins. While it seems this might protect the plant from being eaten, I cannot find any of these beautiful flowers outside my deer fence.

Bloodroot flowers 1

Group of open Bloodroot flowers

But here in the yard, there are several small clumps thriving, pushing up through the leaf litter, even when it is still too cold for most plants, sharing their dazzling petals, if only for a few days. Perhaps that is why the word sanguine means confidently optimistic and cheerful. More on the ecology of this wonderful wildflower tomorrow.




A Milky Way within the Wood

Surely no flower of the year can vie with this in spotless beauty. Its very transitoriness enhances its charm.

~ Mrs. William Starr Dana in How to Know the Wild Flowers, 1917


Bloodroot flowers are beautiful, yet brief (click photos to enlarge)

Twice this past week I came across one of my favorite wildflowers, Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. When open, the pure white flowers of Bloodroot are large and easily seen compared to the tiny blossoms of many of the other woodland spring wildflowers. But look fast, as each flower typically only lasts a couple of days before a slight breeze, rain, or other environmental disturbance causes the petals to drop. The flowers produce no nectar so any pollinators are either fooled by the showy blossoms or come to gather the pollen. As with several other early spring bloomers, Bloodroot can self-pollinate. This beautiful specimen was one of three seen at a short hike at Johnston Mill Nature Preserve in Orange County, one of several properties managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy.

bloodroot 1

Bloodroot bud extending beyond its protective leaf

This otherwise delicate flower is named for the blood-red juice that escapes if you pick a leaf or cut into the rhizome. Native Americans used it as a dye and body paint and it is used now in some toothpaste brands to reduce plaque growth and fight decay. On the hike last week at Pilot Mountain State Park, we found a solitary Bloodroot growing on a steep bank above a stream. It was a single bud, seemingly protected by a curled leaf wrapped around the stem.

bloodroot leaf

Bloodroot leaf back lit by the setting sun

After the flower blooms, the leaf expands and often becomes horizontal. A couple of years ago, I came across a single leaf on a steep slope at Swift Creek Bluffs Nature Preserve, another Triangle Land Conservancy property. It glowed in the low angle light, highlighting the textured network of veins in the odd-shaped leaf. It was one of those moments when you simply are in awe of a small bit of nature.  Even though their brief show is quickly passing in this part of the state, I hope to see more Bloodroot on upcoming trips to the mountains, as spring progresses up the slopes. Each encounter is time-well spent with a ephemeral woodland beauty.

What time the earliest ferns unfold

And meadow cowslips count their gold

A countless multitude they stood

A Milky Way within the wood

White are my dreams, but whiter still

The bloodroot on the lonely hill…

~Danske Dandridge