Blood root is a member of the Poppy Family
(Papaveraceae). It is native to North America and grows from Nova Scotia south to Florida and west to the Rocky Mountains. It prefers shaded, moist, rich woodlands and creek banks and can be cultivated from seeds. It is considered an endangered plant and should not be harvested in the wild.
Bloodroot is a perennial, herbaceous plant that grows to be 6 - 7 inches tall. The basal, lobed leaf is wrapped around the stem and bud as it grows and only opens as the flower blooms. The white, waxy looking flower normally contains 8 symmetrically arranged petals. The petals are alternately large and small around the golden center. The flower blooms in early spring from March to May. It is among the first to put in an appearance. It is extremely delicate and short lived. The stem has a reddish, waxy appearance and the root contains a blood red sap that is toxic. This red sap is the reason for the Genus name for the plant - Sanguinaria - which comes from the Latin word for bleeding. Other names by which this plant has been known include Red Pucoon, Indian paint, Redroot, Pauson, Tellerwort, Coon Root, Snakelite and Sweet Slumbe.
Bloodroot has an unusual method of seed propagation - it uses ants. The seed has a fleshy part called an elaiosome that attracts ants. The ants take the seeds back to their nests and eat the elaiosomes. They then put the seeds in their nest debris - or garbage dump - where the seeds are protected and fertilized until they germinate in the spring.
The Native American People used the juice from the root as body paint. Warriors painted their faces with it while maidens used it as body paint to entice a mate. Young men of one tribe would put the juice on their palm and contrive to shake hands with the maiden of his choice. In 5 or 6 days according to the charm, the maiden would be more than willing to marry him.
The juice was also used as a dye for cloth. It produces a yellow-orange color that is resistant to fading.
Native Americans and early settlers used Bloodroot for many of their medical conditions, everything from skin cancers to a sore throat. The most persistent of the treatments takes advantage of the flesh destroying properties of the juice; it was used on ringworm, warts, polyps, fungal growths and other such parasites.
The sap of Bloodroot produces a morphine-like alkaloid called sanguinarine which is stored in the root. This extract can be toxic to animal and human cells and should be used with extreme caution. Taking this drug internally in the wrong doses can cause burning in the stomach, intense thirst, vomiting, faintness, vertigo and dimness of vision. In addition it has a very nasty taste. It is not a good idea to try to self treat with this herb.
The United States Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of sanguinarine extracted from Bloodroot in toothpaste and mouthwash as an antibacterial and anti-plaque agent. In has been found useful in the treatment of gingivitis and certain other oral disorders.