What a spring this has been! The wildflowers have been spectacular. Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum)are just starting to appear here in the Delta. Since the weather has stayed warm enough, but not too hot, salt and pepper (Erigenia bulbosum), which usually comes and goes in February, are still here. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and cress (Cardamine bulbosa) will greet you if you go out in the woods right now. My mother’s favorite, Dutchman’s britches (Dicentra cucullaria), are proving elusive this year. I hope to see them before I leave for Africa this weekend. If I don’t, it will probably be too late when I return in April.
These perennial species only flower in the early Spring. They are adapted to old deciduous hard wood forests. They have found a niche before the oaks and hickories spread their leaves and turn the forest floor dark. The woodland spring wildflowers are not showy and don’t last long, so its a treasure hunt trying to find them.
My father and grandfather introduced the joy of spring wildflowers to our whole family. So, for nearly 60 years I have been joining or creating expeditions to the woods several times a each Spring. I’ve only missed one year that I remember. This was when I was in graduate school and spending every possible moment working on a psychology master’s thesis. When I woke up from this academic trance, all the trees in the woods had leafed out. The flowers I most adore had all bloomed and set seed.
I realized that I had been so busy studying psychology that I had missed what is one of the most therapeutic exercises anyone can do: walking the woods in springtime. I suppose you could get most of the psychological benefit just from walking in the woods. The Japanese call it forest bathing and brings throngs of Japanese to the woods.
Many also enjoy the therapeutic effects of consuming the roots of these perennials. I remember this first time I tasted bloodroot. My grandfather had taught me to identify it and told me of its benefits to health. Bloodroot was used by American Indian tribes in the treatment of ulcers, skin conditions, and as a blood purifier. All of these medicinal uses come from the blood-red juice exuded from the fresh root. The juice also was used for coughs and sore throats. Higher oral doses expel phlegm and cause vomiting. The root entered 19th century medicine as a caustic topical treatment for skin cancers, polyps, and warts. Bloodroot is even today marketed in toothpastes and mouthwashes for the prevention of gum disease.
After learning all this, my six year old self decided I would try some. Since we had plenty in the woods, my grandfather allowed me to dig one up, crack the root open and lick some of the red oozing out. Never had I tasted anything so bitter. No wonder the native tribes placed the juice on a lump of maple sugar before they ingested it. (Later I learned that the green persimmon was even more bitter, but that’s another story.)
The taste and beauty of bloodroot made me intrigued by the small plant. Then I learned that no one knew how to propagate it from seed, though you can easily propagate it from the roots. I had another reason to visit the woods regularly in the Spring. I had to figure this out.
The first thing I found out is that ants knew how to propagate bloodroot even though humans didn’t know how. Ants love a fleshy, white, root-like structure called an elaiosome which is attached to bloodroot seed.
When the bloodroot flower is pollinated, it forms a slender green pod about 2 inches long. This pod opens when the seed is mature with the elaiosome attached. Ants then climb up into the flower, grab the seed and take it back to the ant colony underground. Some of the seeds are eaten, but some survive, sprout and create new bloodroot plants.
To harvest bloodroot seed from wild plants you have to beat the ants to the seed. The ants are alert to when the pods open and immediately climb up and remove all the seed.
The way around this, I found, was to gently stoke the pod just before it would open naturally on its own. The pod opens. Then you empty the seeds from the pod into a container of good, rich forest soil. Take the soil to a site in the forest with no bloodroot, plant the seed with the good soil. If you are lucky and chose a good site, bloodroot plants will come up.
It’s a lot of work, but gives you a good excuse to get out in the woods several times each spring as you watch the green pods grow and begin to turn yellow just before you need to stroke them.
I’ve propagated lots bloodroot this way, but recently I hear some herb companies are selling bloodroot seed. I guess I should buy some of that seed, but I prefer to just harvest my own seed from the wild.
Gives me a chance to do lots of forest bathing every Spring.
Hope you get out into the woods this Spring. It will be worth it even if you don’t have enough time to collect bloodroot seed before the ants get them.