Bloodroot – The Definitive Spring Ephemeral


Got shade? Appreciate native plants? Enjoy a bizarre propagation partnership between plant ‘n’ ant? Want another excuse to go check on your garden every day in the spring? Like a plant that can switch from a gory or even disgusting common name to a patriotic scientific name?

Emerging Bloodroot
Emerging bloodroot. The deep veins on the leaf are reminiscent of cabbage but don’t eat them!

Sanguinaria canadensis (go Canada!)commonly known as bloodroot or slightly less commonly as bloodwort (not wart but close enough for a big ick!), is an answer to all these questions. It’s native to Ontario (and most of Eastern North America), and hangs out in forests. Mid April is a normal time for bloodroot to start blooming, but it’s been known to take advantage of an early warm stretch and get the blooming business underway. The foliage and blooms emerge from the ground simultaneously, with each bud getting wrapped in its own private leaf in preparation for a coming out party.

Bloodroot Bloom

Bloom beginning to open. If you squint it looks like a deviled egg on a green pedestal.

Before the leaf unfurls, the bloom will extend beyond it and begin a short cycle of opening every morning and closing at night. The blooms are delicate little things, ranging from 8-12 thin petals and yellow reproductive bits for the ‘hardboiled egg’ colour scheme. They’re very low to the ground but have the courtesy to point upwards for easy viewing for anyone taller than 12 inches.

Any individual bloom will last only a few days before the petals drop and disintegrate without a trace (no messy goop like spent daylilies) – the definition of a spring ephemeral and why they deserve to be viewed frequently to see what changes a new day has brought them! As delicate as the blooms appear they can still withstand frost – a feature any sensible plant will have if it hopes to get its blooming done this early in Ontario. They aren’t synchronized in their bloom times though, and an established clump can put on a show for 2 weeks or more with new blooms quickly taking over from the exhausted ones like a well organized relay team.

Clump of Bloodroot
An established clump, looking dapper in dappled shade.

And they will establish reasonably quickly. Reproduction by stolons (roots spreading horizontally underground and new plants growing up from them) is reasonably efficient but not very rambunctious and a well-contained clump will form.

By comparison the seeds are considerably more adventurous but still don’t stray too far from home. The clever bloodroot has a delicious fleshy gunk (elaiosomes) on its seeds that ants love to eat and consequently the seeds are hoarded in ant colonies for midnight snacks. After the gunk has been eaten, the ants discard what remains like a coffee cup on the side of the highway. The litterbugs! Unlike roadside trash, this is no garbage and holds the promise of something beautiful – it is a viable seed that has been protected by the ant colony from less discerning seed gourmands, is often disposed of underground in the ants nutrient rich compost pile, and has been moved to a new address away from its parent plant.

We haven’t found this to cause a rampant spreading issue, the new plants are usually no more than a few feet away from the main clump (ants have short legs and don’t travel too far), are not oppressively numerous, and given that there will be no trace of the plant by the end of summer to add to garden cleanup, we use the ants as volunteer labour and let them spread the seeds all they like. Bloodroot has shallow roots, so removing or relocating any offenders is no major chore if you demand tidiness but I can’t rant about a plant planted by an ant!

Bloodroot Root
The “bloody” root. I think I had a nightmare about this when I was younger. Fortunately the roots prefer to stay underground and only rarely attack us surface dwellers.

Why the gory name? The roots are actually an orangey reddish colour that will bleed a reddish sap if you prod them with something sharp. This stuff has many uses including dying things red. Such things as canvas if you want to look artistic or your skin if you want to look scary. Scary from both the red dye colour and the rash it can cause if used incorrectly. It can irritate some people’s skin, so wearing gloves when transplanting is a good idea and eating any part of bloodroot is a bad idea. Even though it looks so scrumptious, don’t eat it! Fortunately, it is said to taste horribly enough that it’s next to impossible for an animal to eat enough to cause a serious problem.

Even more exciting than enjoying it in our garden is stumbling upon an undisturbed patch growing in the wild. As with any native plant, if you are looking to acquire bloodroot for your own shady patch we encourage you to seek out nursery propagated stock rather than head to the bushes with a shovel and help preserve our native flora for all to enjoy!

~Brian Robin

 No lying on my back and looking up to take this picture, bloodroot faces the sun! Score one over the hellebores.

No lying on my back and looking up to take this picture! Bloodroot is short, but has the decency to face it’s blooms upwards. Score one over the hellebores.