Bloodroot, native to the deciduous woods and woodland slopes of eastern North America, is a relative of the poppy (Papaver spp.). This low-growing perennial bears white flowers and a single, rounded, gray-green leaf that wraps around the flower. The genus name Sanguinaria comes from the Latin sanguis, or “blood,” which refers to the red sap found in the plant’s rhizomes and roots.
Native Americans once used the red-orange liquid as a fabric dye and body paint. They also made a tea from the plant’s roots to treat colds, sore throats, fevers, joint problems, and many other conditions. Tribes in the Lake Superior region applied the sap to cancerous growths on the skin.
Common Names: Bloodroot, Red Paint Root, Red Puccoon
Description: Herbaceous perennial, 4 to 6 inches tall; naked stems rise from thick, horizontal rhizomes; 1- to 2-inch white flowers; deeply lobed palmate leaves up to 8 inches across at maturity
Hardiness: To Zone 3
Parts Used: Rhizomes
Range/Habitat: Native to eastern North America; cool, moist woodland slopes
The rhizomes of bloodroot contain many types of alkaloids; one of the most important is sanguinarine, which has antifungal, expectorant, antispasmodic, cathartic, and cardiovascular actions. The herb has a relaxing effect on the bronchial muscles and has proven useful in the treatment of bronchitis. In extremely small doses administered under the supervision of a medical professional, bloodroot has been used to treat asthma, croup, and laryngitis.
Bloodroot is sometimes used externally to treat conditions such as skin sores, eczema, warts, nasal polyps, and benign skin tumors. Bloodroot extracts are used in dental hygiene products, such as mouthwash, to fight plaque formation and gum disease, although it is known to induce mutations in DNA, and some sources suggest that long-term use of these products should be avoided.
Caution: Bloodroot is considered a toxic plant and shouldn’t be ingested or used during pregnancy. It should only be used under the supervision of a qualified medical professional. Bloodroot has been overharvested in the wild and is at risk of becoming endangered. If you buy this herb, check the source to be sure that the herb has been cultivated, not harvested from the wild.
The pure white blossoms and uniquely shaped foliage of bloodroot are a lovely addition to informal shade gardens and woodland plantings. The cultivar ‘Multiplex’ has full, long-lasting blooms.
How to grow it
Plant nursery-grown plants or sow seeds in partial shade and moist, well-drained soil amended with compost. Space plants 6 to 8 inches apart. To harvest the rhizomes, dig up mature plants (5 years or older) in early fall. Reserve some of the rhizomes and replant them at their original spacing.