All About Bloodroot

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By Judith Irven, gardening expert, landscape designer and writer.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), a member of the Poppy family, is a true American native, growing naturally in deciduous forests across the entire eastern half of the USA and southern Canada.

And, by looking at the way it grows in the wild, we can learn how to grow this beauty successfully in our own gardens.

Woodland Spring Magic

Each spring, after months of winter dormancy, the forests suddenly come alive. As the sun streaks through the still-bare branches of the taller canopy trees, it gradually warms the cold ground. And then something truly magical happens: a host of spring wildflowers - dog-tooth violets, trillium, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, and many more - burst forth to light up the ground.

And among the very first wildflowers to emerge each spring is the beautiful Bloodroot

Each flower consists of 8-10 sparkling-white, pointed petals radiating out from the clear yellow center. Bloodroot grows naturally close to the forest floor. This is where fallen leaves and twigs gradually decay and merge into the top layers of soil to form a delicate nutrient-rich structure.

Nobody rakes leaves in the forest and the decaying leaves on the forest floor create the perfect environment for bloodroot.

How Bloodroots Spread:

The underground portion of each Bloodroot plant is actually a fleshy subterranean stem, called a rhizome. Bloodroot rhizomes grow outward, horizontally through the soft soil of the forest floor, eventually forming a substantial colony.

A carpet of flowers: Individual rhizomes are actually segmented by nodes, each of which can sprout a separate flower stalk. This results in a dense carpet of bloodroot flowers that emerge like magic among the decaying leaves of the forest floor.

On sunny days, the pristine white flowers open wide to receive the early-pollinating insects. But each night and on rainy days they close up tightly to protect their precious pollen.

After a few short weeks the trees of the forest leaf out, the ground becomes shaded, and the spring wildflowers begin to set seed.

Many woodland wildflowers are ephemeral, meaning that, after they have finished flowering and set seed, the entire plant becomes dormant and disappears below ground until the following spring.

bloodroot rhizomesbloodroot rhizomes
<a href="/perennials/woodland-wildflowers/bloodroot">Bloodroot</a> Rhizomes grow outwards, which allows them to quickly spread and cover the ground.

Some, however--most notably BloodrootJack-in-the-pulpit, and trillium-- continue to maintain their leaves during the summer for added photosynthesis.

Bloodroot leaves are wide and scalloped. These form an attractive groundcover that, especially in cooler parts of the country, remains above ground most of the summer.

Growing bloodroot in your woodland garden:

Choose a location that offers similar conditions to those you find in our native forests:

  • Bloodroot needs dappled sun in springtime, and shade or partial shade during the summer. A perfect location would be beneath some deciduous garden trees, perhaps a group of crab apples or serviceberries.

Emulate the conditions you find on the forest floor:

  • Incorporate plenty of compost into the top six inches of your soil before you plant your Bloodroot. Partially-decomposed leaves are excellent for this purpose.
  • Each fall cover the plants with a light mulch, ideally a layer of chopped leaves,

Give your Bloodroot’s underground rhizome plenty room to expand:

  • Given sufficient space, a single rhizome will eventually become a wide mat that produces an abundance of flowers each spring.
  • Give your Bloodroot rhizomes at least three feet away from shade garden plants with strong root systems, especially ferns and hostas.

And avoid these locations:

  • Do not plant your Bloodroot where the soil is likely to become very dry during the summer months, such as under trees with dense thirsty surface roots like maples or honey locusts.
  • Do not plant your Bloodroot underneath evergreens such as spruce or arborvitae, where very little light penetrates and the soil is also likely to be very dry.

And finally, two words of caution:

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<a href="/perennials/woodland-wildflowers/bloodroot">Bloodroot</a> is one of the first bloomers in the spring, often carpeting the floor of the forest in early spring.
  1. Be careful as you begin your spring clean-up. On the first warm day of spring, after a long cold winter, gardeners everywhere are eager to get outdoors and begin tidying up in preparation for the new season. But the emerging Bloodroot flowers, still wrapped in their green-gray leaf covering, are all too easy to overlook among the remaining leaves from last fall. So be sure to mark the position of your Bloodroot with a small stake and then avoid walking or raking in that vicinity until after its flowers have opened.
  2. In springtime, deer enjoy the emerging Bloodroot plants as much as we do! So, if deer frequent your garden, it would be prudent to cover your Bloodroot with a tent of chicken wire. Alternatively, enclose the entire bed by stringing monofilament fish line horizontally at one-foot intervals.
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A personal story:

What does the name Bloodroot signify?

If you cut or bruise a Bloodroot rhizome it exudes a red watery sap. Native Americans basket makers still extract this sap and use it as a dye.

When we first moved to Vermont, over twenty years ago now, each spring I took note of a solitary white flower that would appear among a profusion of ferns on the slope behind our house. A quick look in a wildflower guide told me it was Bloodroot.

Eventually I decided to clear the slope and create a brand new garden. First, in springtime, I carefully marked the location of the Bloodroot. Then the following fall I dug around the marker and soon discovered a single rhizome that exuded the characteristic red sap. I knew I had what I was looking for!

I then carefully replanted it in my newly created ‘shade garden’ beneath a trio of serviceberries. And each spring for the next several years I was delighted by the ever-widening colony of white Bloodroot flowers, to be followed later by the characteristic scalloped leaves.

After a few more years, once again in fall, I re-dug my Bloodroot. I carefully divided the tangled mass of rhizomes and replanted several segments in other parts of the garden. Now every April I look forward to the emergence of five beautiful colonies of this amazing wildflower, telling me once again that spring has returned to the mountains of Vermont.


About the Author: Judith Irven is an accomplished Vermont landscape designer and garden writer, and she delights in helping people everywhere create beautiful gardens. You can visit her online at: OutdoorSpacesVermont.com.

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