Bloodroot, Covid-19, and the Survival of our Species

Bloodroot on the hillshide

Disclaimer — I am not a scientist or a medical professional. Any content in this article is for informational purposes only. Consult your healthcare provider if you have any medical concerns or questions.

The last inch of frozen slush on the edges of my gravel driveway has finally melted, and spring is beginning to unfurl like the proud wings of a peacock.

There is no more smoke coming from the chimneys of sugar shacks, and the green grass peeks through the damp duff in the ditches.

The new greenery attracts our eyes, lifts our spirits, and a subtle symphony plays out all around us, too quiet to hear without kneeling down on the damp grass and bending closer to the earth.

Bloodroot has always attracted my attention in the woods. It is a delicate white flower that is not so large and showy as Trillium, but blooms in a similar time frame. It is one of the first flowers on the south facing sandy slop of my landscape in western Wisconsin. The very distinctive basal leave wraps like a cloak around a single flower stem, and as that flower blooms, the cloak unfurls slowly over time.

A member of the poppy family, the petals shine for a day or two and then are easily washed away by rain. The fertilized flower stalk grows no more, while the leaf continues upward.

By late summer the fruit capsule ripens and opens up to expose a number of hard seeds which have a fleshy appendage attached to them, called an elaiosome, which contain lipids and fats that attract ants to come and take them away to their nests, where the elaisomes are fed to the ant larvae. The seed is then discarded into their underground compost pile, planting and fertilizing the seed much more effectively than simply laying on the surface ofthe ground. A single ant colony may collect over a thousand seeds in a single season. This process is called myrmecochory, from the Latin for “circular dance”.

The leaf grows onward horizontally over all this activity, larger than most other spring flower leaves, protecting the process into early summer and finally dropping to the ground, exhausted, to decompose gradually into the soil.

Many spring ephemerals depend on this mutualism to propagate their species. A landscape that is friendly to the ant species who are partners in this dance is essential. This mutually beneficial strategy in the early spring makes a lot of sense — the elaisomes are one of the very first significant food sources for the ants, but as spring winds down and summer takes over, other more abundant proteins and fats become much more widely available. By this time, the life cycle of the Bloodroot enters into a different stage.

The light energy caught by the leaf is transformed into new leaf and flower buds underground by the red rhizome, at about the same time the old leaves in the trees begin to turn red and gold. The plant enters dormancy for the winter, and when the sweet sap begins to flow once again in the nearby maples, Bloodroot emerges from the duff before many other plants have even woken up.

Bloodroot, or Sanguinaria canadensis, is named such because of the red sap that oozes from the rhizomes. The sap and rhizome are classified as poisonous to ingest, and can cause severe burning of the flesh, but has been traditionally used as a red dye by many indigenous cultures of the area. In traditional medicine, Bloodroot has been used as an emetic, a substance to induce vomiting, and as a respiratory aid as well.

Strangely enough bloodroot extract is commonly used in dental hygiene products such as toothpaste and antibacterial or anti-plaque agents, in very small concentrations. There is much that is not understood about this unique and distinctive plant, and I wonder what kinds of medicine it may help us to create in the future, especially in this unique time, when hundreds of thousands of people are directly affected by the Covid-19 virus that attacks the lungs. Perhaps Bloodroot has some unique molecule that can help create a more effective treatment. Maybe a scientist will take up this research.

As a spring ephemeral, Bloodroot plays a very important role in the ecology of our landscapes. As noted, they provide a very early source of food for some ant species. Their flowers produce pollen and nectar which are essential foods for bumble bee Queens, who are out collecting this food source to feed to their larvae in the early spring. These larvae grow to become the worker bees that pollinate many plants. Other species of spring ephemeral have their own specialist pollinators. The solitary miner bee (a solitary, ground nesting bee that likes to establish their home in well-drained soils) Andrena erigeniae has only one source of nourshment, the Spring Beauty. Trout Lilies too have a specialist miner bee pollinator, the trout lily bee, Andrena erythronii. The Rusty Patched Bumblebee, Bombinus affinus, is an endangered species that may also rely on the pollen that early spring wildflowers and blooming shrubs produce.

Each spring ephemeral captures nutrients from the first wave of water that moves through the newly thawed soil, which includes meltwater leeching from the many stockpiles of frozen winter dung. They also capture that first full sunlight not blocked by larger plant leaves.

They use this excess of energy to grow quickly and profusely, generally storing their captured resources in underground stems, such as bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tubers.

The interplay between Bloodroot and other spring ephemerals, and the bees and ants that live in symbiosis with them, is such a delicate and finely woven fabric of coexistence that most of the activity that we undertake, as large and callous humans (no matter how well-intentioned), causes rips and tears in that fine material. Sometimes, doing nothing at all is the best help that we can give to the tiny ants and bees as they go about their own microscopic daily drama.

We need to protect the areas where this matrix of holistic natural beneficence exists right now, and we need to expand this precious fabric over the whole of the land.

So many times in my life I’ve had these reoccurring questions: Do we need one more parking lot? Do we need one more superstore? Do we need one more pizza joint? No, we do not. What we really and truly need is fields of Bloodroot and the ant and bee colonies that live in a mutual harmony that far surpasses our myopic abilities to comprehend.

Instead, though, we find hungry machines leveling every available plot of land to be developed for the ever almighty dollar that can be be made through capitalism and profit. As we can all see now, quarantined in our own homes, there is much much more to life than profit and gaining another dollar. There is life itself to appreciate. The birds, the bees, the ants, and the frogs that peep in the vernal ponds all continue on their life trajectories as we, forced to stay in one place for more than a day, begin to see how manufactured and fragile our own societal norms are.

We depend on these norms to feel good, but perhaps there is another way of life, one where we depend much more on our relationship with the natural world to feel good?

Who is to say that Bloodroot will not be developed into a new miracle cure for Covid-19? And who is to say how many more of these subtly powerful medicines grow in the fields that we plow under, in the rainforests that we cut down, in the oceans that we pollute? All of this destruction is carried out in the name of continuing our societal norms, the ones that we think make us feel good.

Let’s cultivate the appreciation of the wild, not just for aesthetic or sentimental reasons, but perhaps for just one simple reason: The very survival of our species.

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