Exploring our natural world can be rewarding and an educational experience. Things are constantly changing with the seasons so every outing poses new experiences and discoveries. Exploring and photographing wildflowers throughout the spring, summer and fall months can yield a variety of species to keep the most avid nature photographer busy composing and clicking away at the camera’s shutter and capturing lovely colorful images of many shapes and sizes in a broad spectrum of habitats. But to the aspiring naturalist/photographer like me, capturing an image of a pretty wildflower is just a part of the adventure and fun.
Learning to identify the species, their natural history, original origin (native or non-native) and adaptation to their habitat; along with their interaction with human kind and wildlife can compliment the overall experience and at times can become quite fascinating. It’s truly amazing that a small thing with such a “short-lived beauty” can contribute so much to our daily existence, whether it is a food source, herbal or medicinal in value.
I was brought up with rich Native American roots by a grandmother who would very often practice her Lakota ways and teach me that every living thing; plant or animal; had a special purpose and place in our natural world. Over the past years I have developed an interest in plants and wildflowers and began to research their contributions to Native Americans and the early settlers.
Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot)
Sanguinaria canadensis or Bloodroot (common name) is one of the first beautiful wildflowers to emerge in the early spring; usually blooming from March to May and is native to our eastern North American woodlands from Nova Scotia south to Florida where it can be found blooming in the rich woodland soil… Bloodroot is an ephemeral, indicating that it appears above the ground in the early spring, flowers, fruits and then dies back to the ground; all in the space of a couple of months. Bloodroot is a member of the Papaveraceae family, along with the poppy…. Sanguinaria Canadensis is the sole member of its genus.
Bloodroot has become a desired addition to many home gardens but as of today, the bloodroot is on the US Department of Agriculture’s list of threatened and endangered species. Shenandoah National Park in Virginia monitors the status of its bloodroot population to prevent illegal poaching. The white blooms of the bloodroot emerge wrapped in a single leaf. (below) Plants reach 6 to 9 inches high. The 3-inch blossoms, which have 8 to 12 petals, are amazingly large for a spring wildflower and only last for one or two days. The leaves are bluish-gray in color, 6 to 12 inches across, and scalloped in 5 to 9 uneven lobes. The leaves persist longer than the flowers, but disappear by early summer.
An interesting fact is that the bloodroot relies on ants to spread its seeds. This is called myrmecochory by botanist and the large black seeds attract ants through an organ called an elaiosome. The ants will carry the seeds to their nests and then consume the elaiosomes, discarding the seeds in their nest material and providing an ideal environment for germination. Bloodroot does not present any type of nectar, but it cleverly tricks pollinators into transporting pollen with its display of bright yellow anthers inside the large white petals. I have observed the presence of ants many times around the base of the mature plants.
Puccoon, A Native American History
Bloodroot is also known as bloodwort or Canada puccoon. The Algonquin tribe called bloodroot puccoon or paucon, which meant “blood-red.” “Puccoon” is one of many American plant names to have a Native American etymology; as it comes from the Powhatan Indian word poughkone or pohcoons, which was recorded by early Virginia colonists as meaning “red paint” or “red dye.” Both this Indian name and the English name “bloodroot” come about because of the red sap bled by the roots of these wildflowers, which was used by many tribes as a dye for clothing and baskets and for face paint.
The Chippewa would dig up the roots in the fall and used the sap to make brilliant red dyes. The Iroquois extracted the rhizomes of the bloodroot to make an orange or yellow fabric dye. Other tribes used the red sap to decorate baskets and clothing. European settlers quickly adopted the use of bloodroot as a fabric dye. In the early years of North American settlement, bloodroot was even imported by the French for the purpose of dyeing wool.
Bloodroot has also been widely used by Native American people as a poison (the bloodroot plant is extremely toxic) and, in small doses, as an herbal medication. In some of the Algonquin communities, bloodroot was associated with romance, and men would wear bloodroot paint when they went courting. It was also been used as a charm. The young men of the Ponca tribe would put the juice of the root on their palm and contrive to shake hands with the maiden they desired to marry and within five or six days she would be a willing mate. However, applying the root or juice to the skin was a questionable activity as the plant is known to be an escharotic; a substance that kills tissue.
The early medicinal uses of bloodroot were acquired from Native Americans living in the Lake Superior region . . . as well as the Cherokee further to the south; however the Cherokee tended to prefer the goldenseal. Both plants were called puccoon, red puccoon and yellow puccoon. Both are strong herbs with significant alkaloids that have been shown to be extremely effective in treating a wide range of conditions and included the flesh destroying properties of the root sap or powered root for treating conditions of the skin such as ringworm, warts, polyps, fungal growths and skin cancers.
Today bloodroot is used in herbal remedies with very small doses, primarily for bronchial problems and severe throat infections. Many pharmaceuticals use the root mixed with other compounds to treat heart problems and to treat migraines. Bloodroot paste is used externally for skin diseases, warts, and tumors. Bloodroot is said to repel insects. The root is used in as an anesthetic, cathartic, emetic, emmenagogue, expectorant, diuretic, febrifuge, sedative, stimulant and tonic. Researchers are investigating the root’s value in cancer treatment. The chief chemical component of this herb is sanguinarine, which actually represents a group of alkaloids that produce effects similar to morphine.
The FDA considers bloodroot “unsafe” and urges that it not be used by herbal healers. However, an extract has long been used in toothpaste and mouthwash to fight plaque and gingivitis and this use is now sanctioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Although bloodroot alkaloids are noted as antibacterial, sanguinarine has been found to be less effective than other anti-plaque agents, such as chlorhexidine and doxycycline. The internal use of bloodroot is now banned in most countries and largely limited to homeopathic preparations elsewhere due to the toxic effects of sanguinarine.
Where to find Bloodroot
Bloodroot prefers a humus-rich soil that is well-drained with high organic matter content. Its natural habitat includes deep shaded areas surrounded by tall hardwood trees where other compatible woodland plants grow such as Jack-in-the-pulpit, mayapple, trillium, and wild ginger. Adequate moisture is important throughout its growing season. It can also be found along roadsides and disturbed areas with partial sunlight, but again moisture and the proper soil pH play an important factor. While in some isolated areas, the plants can be locally abundant, bloodroot are generally considered somewhat rare.
My first exposure to bloodroot was along the Blue Ridge Parkway several years back on a return trip home to Pennsylvania after a visit to Texas. I had noticed this species before here in Pennsylvania but never paid much attention to it other than to remark on its beauty. We took a little detour from our normal route on the interstate to add a lovely diversion and variety to what had become such a routine route of annual travel. The parkway is quite beautiful in the early spring, with sparse traffic and abundant early spring blooms. We traveled the section from Cherokee North Carolina (Great Smoky Mountains National Park) to Roanoke Virginia. I observed bloodroot at numerous locations along the route along with many other mountain and woodland wildflowers.
I have since discovered numerous locations for bloodroot and several are less than a 10 minute drive from my home and all located within some of my favorite birding and avian photography hotspots. The Kowomu Trail (Sawmill Road) in northern Carroll County Maryland has been productive over the past few years, although I didn’t see as many plants this year. I found large patches along Morningstar Road off PA Route 216 just south of Codorus State Park in southern York County Pennsylvania.
Other productive areas included the Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve (A recent blog post), and along nearby River Road; especially in the Tuquan Natural Area. Elmer and I photographed a few along a trail off US Route 322 in upper Lancaster County Pennsylvania near the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. The wooded sections of Middle Creek have a nice population as well.
Photographing the bloodroot plant and bloom is fun but can present quite a challenge. As with any subject “white” in color, proper exposure is critical for maximum detail and definition in the petals. Shooting in shaded areas at limited depth of field (high F-stop numbers) can require longer exposures and a good tripod is an essential addition to the camera and lens.
Unwanted hotspots from spattered sunlight combined with choppy shadows can wreak havoc on a lovely scene with blown highlights and dense shadows fostering undesired contrast and harsh images. The use of fill flash is almost a necessity.
I mostly always use a flash for one reason or another and just vary the shutter at the desired aperture for a gentle fill with variations of allowed ambient light. The nice thing is that the plant isn’t going anywhere during your photo session so talking your time and bracketing exposures can be rewarding in the end.
Most importantly with any and all wildflower photography is to have fun and learn a little more about the species other than just capturing the image.