Garden Notes: Bloodroot is quite a conservative, practical wildflower

In the late 1990s, dentists started to notice an increase in leukoplakia, a condition that is often a precursor to cancer.

Ohio State Professor of Oral Pathology and Dentistry Carl Allen compared all the dental hygiene products on the market at the time and found that Viadent was the only brand using the toxin sanguinarine. With FDA approval, Colgate, the manufacturer of Viadent, used sanguinarine because of its antibacterial and anti-plaque agents.

Researchers found that users of Viadent toothpaste and mouthwash were eight to 11 times more likely to develop leukoplakia than people who had never used those products. As a result of this American Cancer Society-sponsored research, Colgate reformulated Viadent and switched to another anti-bacterial agent.

The root of all this trouble is one of our most radiant spring wildflowers. Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, is a very independent little flower.

It’s the only species in the genus Sanguinaria. It emerges early in the spring from a shallow rhizome as a solitary pink stalk; the leaves wrapped tightly around the flower bud. As the flower emerges, it looks almost like a white tulip rising from the leaves. As it blooms, it shows eight, or sometimes 12, white alternating petals. Find it at the right time, and you’ll know immediately what you’re looking at. The flower is square!

And very conservative. And practical. Bloodroot doesn’t bother using energy to open its flowers unless there are pollinators in the area. Pollinators don’t fly at night or if temperatures are low, so bloodroot flowers stay curled inside their protective leaves until the sun shines.

On a sunny day, bloodroot flowers will open if the temperature is above 46 degrees Fahrenheit. If, after three warm days, no pollinators have taken advantage, the plant drops the white petals, closes up and pollinates itself.

The Bloodroot leaves continue to grow throughout the summer to provide the rhizome with energy to get through the winter. Both the leaves and the rhizome contain the red sap that gives it its name.

Sanguinaria canadensis is a prized garden ornamental. The Bloodroot, “Flora Plena” has flowers with 14 to 16 petals and blooms longer than the wildflower.

Once in awhile, someone hits the wildflower discovery jackpot. That happened to Guido von Webern in 1916 when he found an unusual Bloodroot mutation on his land in Ohio. The petals of this flower upped the ante by transforming into a completely double-blossomed Bloodroot. It looks like a miniature, luminous white water lily. Some experts say Sanguinaria canadensis f. multiplex is the most beautiful flower in the world.

Coming up:

* Now open: PSU Blair County Master Gardeners, answering your gardening questions on Garden Line, 940-5989 every Tuesday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Sept. 30.

* April 12, 9 a.m. to noon, Allegheny Mountain Woodland Association, Ebensburg Borough Building, Native PA Plants for Every Garden and Every Season, Dr. Eric Burkhart.

* Thursday and April 17 and 24, Discovery Garden, Legion Park, Hollidaysburg, various topics, Tom Ford, PSU Horticulture Educator, PSU Extension, Cambria County.

Contact Teresa Futrick at