Bloodroot Plants

These are spring ephemeral flowers for native plant gardens

Blood flowers in bloom
David Beaulieu

Known to botanists as Sanguinaria canadensis, bloodroot plants are herbaceous perennials that spread by means of rhizomes to form colonies under the right conditions. They are indigenous to eastern North America and members of the poppy family, as is the better known Oriental poppyBeware: these are poisonous plants.

What Does Bloodroot Look Like?

Bloodroot bears a single flower of a relatively impressive size: 2 inches, on a plant that reaches only 6 inches in height when in bloom (and, at most, about 1 foot by mid-summer).

The flower has white petals and yellow stamens. These delicate blossoms pucker up at night and on cloudy days, which is unfortunate, considering that their lifespan can be as short as a day or two. They are among the earliest spring flowers.

Just as plants put out but a single bloom, they also bear but a single leaf. And as with the flower, this basal leaf is relatively large for such a small perennial and becomes even larger in summer (up to 10 inches wide). It is an attractive leaf, gray-green in color (underside paler than the upper side), rounded, with deep lobes, and decorated with showy veins.

Perhaps the fascinating aspect of bloodroot's appearance is the way the plant emerges from the ground in spring. The unopened leaf envelops the flower bud as if sheltering its baby in swaddling clothes from the still chilly temperatures of early spring. The leaf slowly unfurls, and the flower eventually peels off from it to strike out on its own, short life.

This drama unfolds in April in my region (New England, U.S.).

Some garden centers sell a cultivar of this spring ephemeral with an even showier, double flower.

Under What Conditions Do the Plants Grow Best?

Bloodroot can be grown in planting zones 3-8. Its habitat in the wild is typically on moist slopes or along stream beds in deciduous forests.

In the landscape, locate it in an area that will receive some sun in spring but that will be at least partially shaded in summer. This stipulation readily suggests bloodroot as a plant you can grow under deciduous trees. You'll have less success growing it on the north side of a house because the shade cast by a structure is more or less constant (unlike the shade cast by deciduous trees).

Provide bloodroot plants with a well-drained, acidic soil enriched with humus. Water adequately to get them established.

What Is a Spring Ephemeral?

Bloodroot plants are considered spring ephemerals. But non-gardeners may wonder what, exactly, that term means. In a nutshell, spring ephemerals don't hang around for long; they take care of business in spring and then retire until next year.

Spring ephemerals emerge in the first half of spring and hit the ground running. Taking advantage of the early light levels (because the trees haven't fully leafed out yet), a spring ephemeral will put out leaves, flower, and fruit over the course of a relatively short time span. It then often goes dormant by mid-summer, although, under favorable conditions, the leaves of some species may retain sufficient beauty for a while longer to contribute visual interest to the landscape.

As the leaves die back, newbies may start to worry that the whole plant is dying, but it's not: they have simply fulfilled their mission for that year.

What's in a Name

The genus name, Sanguinaria means "pertaining to blood" in Latin and refers to the reddish-orange sap emitted by the plants. We derive the English word "sanguine" (meaning "cheerful") from this same Latin term, because healthy, cheerful people "have blood in their cheeks," as opposed to anemic, depressed people.

The specific epithet, Canadensis, indicates location, although Canada comprises only the northern end of its range. Such geographical imprecision is frequently encountered in assigning a moniker to a plant, whether it be a common name or a scientific name. For example, the red columbine flower native to New England is called Aquilegia canadensis in botanical lingo.

Likewise, the common name "Virginia creeper" refers to a plant whose native range far exceeds the borders of Virginia.

The common name, "bloodroot" (alternatively, "bloodwort") alludes to the same feature as the botanical name: the color of the sap that emanates from the plant (especially the roots).

Non-Landscaping Uses, Toxicity

Of bloodroot plants, Doug Ladd writes in North Woods Wildflowers (p.205): "The bitter sap is poisonous and has caused fatalities. Nonetheless, it was used by North American Indians for insect repellent, dye, ceremonial pigment, and a variety of medicines."

Landscaping Uses for Bloodroot, Its Strengths, and Weaknesses

Beginning gardeners may limit their selection of perennials for spring flower borders to spring bulb plants and, perhaps, such common perennials as creeping phlox. But the longer you landscape, the more you may come to appreciate the plants native to your area that flower in spring. Where I live (eastern North America), there are several spring ephemerals worth shopping for at native-plant establishments. Making such lovelies a part of your plant selection will give you an interesting yard and turn the heads of gardening friends who are quick to recognize smart plant choices that you won't find in the average landscape. 

Bloodroot's flowers don't last for long; blink, and you've missed the display. But if you're lucky enough to have a colony of them, as in this picture, the impact of such a mass of flowers is powerful while it lasts. Moreover, the leaves -- which stick around for a much longer time than do the flowers -- bear an intriguing shape and color. They remind me of the foliage of plume poppies.

As with Mayapple plants, part of the pleasure in growing bloodroot (for the gardener with discriminating tastes and ample time) is in closely observing the leaf and flower stalk as they emerge and separate in spring. It's one of those subtle joys to be appreciated by those who value the so-called "little things" in life. 

Bloodroot is a great choice for a woodland garden.

 It also works well in a shade garden that receives partial sun in spring but that becomes shadier in summer when the nearby trees leaf out. I have found that it requires more spring sunlight than its fellow native spring ephemeral, the Hepatica plant.