Tag Archives: myrmecochory

Bloodroot — Sanguinaria canadensis

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot is one of the most iconic spring wildflowers of eastern North America. Emerging in the early spring and blooming for only a few days, you could miss it if you blink! I love going on long walks in the early spring and finding the closed bloodroot flowers emerging pink along the wooded hillsides. When they first appear they are wrapped in a blanket made by the rolling, intricate-lobes of the leaf.

After the flowers have unfolded, they are pearly and beautiful and white. In less than just one week, the petals will have fallen to the ground, dropping off their buds one by one. While the flowering of bloodroot is brief, the foliage persists into the summer.

Bloodroot flower close-up
Bloodroot flower close-up

Sanguinaria canadensis, the eponymous bloodroot, is in the poppy family Papaveraceae. The poppies are known for being lactiferous, meaning they bleed a milky latex substance. Bloodroot bleeds a red sap.

The red sap of bloodroot has been used as a dye and as a body paint. Another common name for bloodroot is red puccoon. Puccoon is an Algonquian word denoting a plant used as dye. Among other well-known puccoon roots are yellow puccoon (goldenseal — Hydrastis canadensis) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum spp. — yields a red pigment).

Bloodroot is also an important medicinal plant. It is used mainly for its antiseptic properties, and also in small doses as a respiratory-system stimulant. I’ll defer to the herbalists for better information on bloodroot’s medicinal applications. A Google search reveals lots of information, such as this general overview.

Bloodroots emerging out of the ground in early spring.
Bloodroots emerging out of the ground in early spring.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, Sanguinaria canadensis usually emerges around late March, as soon as the threat of snow goes away and day-time temperatures begin to warm. Down south, bloodroot can be spotted in February, and up in southeastern Canada bloodroot might come up as late as May.

Anatomy of Sanguinaria canadensis
Anatomy of Sanguinaria canadensis

In the picture above we can see the anatomy of Sanguinaria canadensis. It grows from a fleshy rhizome that is a deep red color giving it the name bloodroot. The rhizome may be divided as a propagation method, or as a gentle harvest technique (taking only a portion of the root and leaving the rest to grow in the following year). The flowers and leaves grow individually from separate shoots off the rhizome.

Bloodroot seed ripens in late spring.
Bloodroot seed ripens in late spring.

The seed pods of Sanguinaria canadensis ripen in the late spring or early summer. I gather seed during the last days of May in Pennsylvania. When ripe, the pods should easily split open upon handling. Left alone, they will spill their contents to the ground below. You will know the seeds are ripe when they have matured to a rich mahogany color.

Each seed bears an elaiosome, which is a fleshy, lipid attachment made up of fats and sugars. These elaiosome attachments are attractive to ants, who gather the seeds off the ground and carry them into their underground colonies. There, they eat the elaiosome and then cast the seed bit into their rubbish pile… conveniently still located under the ground! Here the seeds await germination while enjoying safe shelter and ideal conditions. This process of ant-plant symbiosis is called myrmecochory.

Bloodroot seed
Bloodroot seed
Bloodroot seed
Bloodroot seed

Bloodroot seeds are double-dormant and require two cold periods or two stratifications before germination. If sown in the late spring or early summer, the seedlings will not emerge in the following spring, but the spring after.

The seeds of bloodroot are intolerant of drying and must be stored cool and moist. Placing them outside with soil in a well-drained container such as a pot is an effective low-tech storage method. Otherwise, they will need to be kept moist-packed and refrigerated, or sown immediately.

Once germinated, bloodroot should be grown directly in the ground — it does not seem to do well growing in a container. It may take several years before a plant puts out its first flower. While I do not know exactly how many years, I treat it as a seven-year-plant much like camas, Trillium, or wild leeks.

Bloodroot is uncommon or threatened in many places, and so I like to spread its seed around in whatever woodlands it will take to well. Although it is tough and resilient once established, and plants can be very long-lived, it is sensitive to too much light and high-sun conditions, and thus has been exterminated from many second-growth forests recovering from a legacy of clearcutting or animal-grazing. This is one older forest species which really requires mesic or moist soil conditions to thrive.

Toadshades and Wakerobins — Trillium species

Painted trillium, Trillium undulatum
Painted trillium, Trillium undulatum (Vermont, June 1st, 2016)

Trillium flowers offer a spectacular spring display. Commonly known as toadshade and wakerobin, they rank among the most beautiful, and the most illusive, of spring ephemeral wildflowers. They come in many different sizes, arrangements, and colors, from the smallest Snow Trilliums (Trillium nivale) to the Sweet Wakerobins (Trillium vaseyi) with flowers as wide as your hand is long! The distribution of Trillium species is all across the North Hemisphere in temperate regions. They are found in forests with rich, loamy soil remaining moist throughout the year.

One of the local native species to the Mid-Atlantic region that I call home has large red flesh-colored flowers. These red wakerobins — Trillium erectum — are colored as well as scented so as to attract the attention of carrion flies for pollination. In the eastern temperate forests of North America, it is quite common to find red, flesh-colored flowers. Everything from trillium,  to pawpaw, sweetshrub, wild ginger, and even skunk cabbage. And every one of these plants are pollinated by carrion flies! Why carrion flies? This is a fascinating ecological aside. As John Muir said,

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

There is more to the flower and fly connection than meets the eye…

When we think of pollination, we think of the honey bee. But the honey bee is not native to North America. Instead, our native bees are ground bees. The ground bees don’t emerge until soil temperatures begin to warm mid-spring, in late April or early May around here in the Mid-Atlantic. (This time also coincides with the opening of nectar-rich nutrient-dense tulip poplar blossoms!). By the time mid-spring comes around, most of our early wildflowers are already in bloom.

Rather than relying on the slumbering bees for pollination, garnering the attention of carrion flies instead seems the better evolutionary strategy. The carrion flies seek out the colors and smells of rotting meat, and they emerge much earlier in the spring — even in the late winter — thanks to the thermogenesis abilities of a plant called skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Skunk cabbage can generate temperatures 15–35 °C (27–63 °F) warmer than the air surrounding the plant! Known as the mother plant by some, its deep red mottled flowers with a foul, rotten smell like flesh prove quite attractive to the carrion flies, who awaken with the warm microclimates created by the skunk cabbages piercing through snow and ice like spears. The flies awaken before the eve of the upcoming spring flower show that will unfold over the coming weeks. These interrelationships demonstrate to us vividly how the ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts.

Trillium erectum growing along the Susquehanna
Trillium erectum growing along Susquehanna (April 15th, 2016)

Trillium species are an occasional food and medicine to humans. The leaves may be eaten as cooked greens, but the root is bitter and inedible, and ought to be considered poisonous. Trillium are within the family Melanthiaceae, which contains some of the most toxic plants such as the death camas (Toxicoscordion/Stenanthium/Zigadenus sp.), fly poisons (Amianthum sp.), and hellebores (Veratrum sp.).

According to folk medicine, a decoction of Trillium root has the medicinal value of controlling blood flow, either to stop internal bleeding or to help in its passage. It was used as an herb to stop bleeding after birth, thus becoming known as “birthwort” or “bethroot.”

Trillium hybrid along Susquehanna
Trillium hybrid along Susquehanna (April 30th, 2016)

The seeds of Trillium develop inside fruit-like capsules in mid-summer. These fruits remain upon the plant for several weeks before they ripen, turn soft, and eventually fall to the ground and split open. Each seed has a large elaiosome attached. An elaiosome is made up of fatty lipids and amino acids, making the seed attractive as a food source to ants who carry them underground into their colonies. Once underground, the ants consume the elaiosome and cast the naked seed into a rubbish pile. Here the seed awaits germination in an optimal environment in terms of light, temperature, and moisture. This process is known as myrmechocory.

Myrmechocory, ants of Trillium seed
“Myrmechocory” — Ants on Trillium seed (not my image)

See the beauty of ecological relationships… Symbiosis is found everywhere. The skunk cabbage fosters carrion flies to pollinate Trillium flowers which form a seed that gets dispersed by ants. What a wonderful, interconnected world!

Trillium erectum gone to seed
Trillium erectum gone to seed (West Virginia, July 14th, 2016)

As the fruit of Trillium begins to soften after a few weeks upon the plant — generally in July and August — you can begin to harvest it. Pick whole fruits and keep them somewhere moist where they can ripen further if necessary, becoming even softer until they split open.

Trillium fruits
Trillium fruits in July (Pennsylvania, July 6th, 2016)
Trillium seed spilled upon the ground
Trillium seed spilled upon the ground (Pennsylvania, July 3rd, 2016)
Seeds inside the fruit of Trillium erectum
Seeds inside the fruit of Trillium erectum (July 3rd, 2016)

Trillium seeds, like ramps (Allium tricoccum), are double-dormant, meaning they need to wait not one, but two winters for germination. However, by harvesting the seeds a little bit early when they are slightly premature, the seeds react by germinating faster, after only a single winter. Some horticulturalists will do this in order to speed-up production times. I don’t have any experience doing this. For my purposes, reintroducing this plant species into new areas, I have allied myself with time and do not have such a sense of urgency. For the sake of genetics and plant health, I prefer my seeds to be as mature as possible and that they take their time.

To store Trillium seed, keep them in a cool, dark, and moist environment. If they dry out, they change to a darker color, shrivel up, and completely lose viability. To prevent this, I place them in a bucket filled with damp forest soil and I leave them there until I am ready to plant them into the ground.

Growing Trillium from seed is another one of those long-term plant investments. After sowing (year 1), there’s the double dormancy, and then the first monocotyledon leaf grows out of the ground and stretches out (year 2). The Trillium may continue with just one leaf another year. But by year 4, all three leaves ought to be showing. It may not be until another 3 years has passed before the Trillium flowers and can set seed of its own. They take overall approximately 7 years from seed to flower. Colonies will form, but can take a very long time to establish. However, with consistent sowing for six years straight, by the seventh year a colony ought to be self-sustaining.