Perhaps its distant kinship with the opium poppy contributes to Sanguinaria canadensis’ less than sanguine reputation. Bloodroot, a Native American species that loves shade and rich, well drained woodland soil, has medicinal uses like the poppy. But, just like opium, it can also cause harm, even death. Its critics, some of them hostile toward all herbal remedies, see lunacy in any medicinal application for bloodroot’s alkaloid-filled sap.
Native American Applications
The Indian nations that inhabited the eastern third of North America, from Nova Scotia to Florida, would disagree. They ingested bloodroot to bring down fevers, ease the pains of rheumatism and promote sleep.
Native Americans also seized on bloodroot’s obvious effectiveness as a coloring agent. Any child who has ever plucked one of the singleton white flowers comes away with what looks like a bloody finger. The sap of the aptly named plant is a vivid red, staining whatever it touches. Indian braves would apply it to their faces as war paint. Indian women stewed cut-up bloodroot into a dye bath to color clothing and basket reeds.
One wonders how many Cherokee braves ended up with facial rashes. That bloody red sap is notoriously caustic. Indeed Indians and early settlers alike exploited that characteristic. For several hundred years, a paste made of bloodroot sap has been used to remove moles, warts and benign skin tumors. Bloodroot alkaloids are the prime ingredients in some commercial mole-removal remedies to this day.
Some early American pharmacopeias hailed bloodroot’s effectiveness in treating skin ulcers, eczema and ringworm and in easing respiratory problems. The caustic nature of bloodroot’s sap may have a homeopathic impact, irritating skin cells and mucus membranes just enough to kick-start a healing reaction.
The caustic nature of bloodroot also came in handy when early settlers needed an emetic.
Other Roles in Herbal Medicine?
The primary alkaloid in bloodroot sap is sanguinarine which reportedly has antiseptic and, ironically, anti-inflammatory properties. In small doses, bloodroot has historically been used as a blood tonic, an antidiuretic and antispasmodic. Overdoses, however, can be over-stimulating, causing loss of consciousness and heart failure.
Like many plants having medicinal potential, the strength of bloodroot’s active ingredients varies widely, in accordance with the growing conditions. Because of concerns about proper dosage, most herbals discourage any home remedies using bloodroot internally.
Bloodroot’s Commercial Applications
The little woodland plant did have a brief heyday in dental hygiene, however. In the battle against dental plaque and gingivitis, sanguinarine became a key ingredient in Viadent toothpaste and mouthwash, both Colgate-Palmolive products.
But once again, controversy reared its head. Sanguinarine was suspected as a factor in the appearance of white lesions inside the mouth, on the tongue and on the gums of Viadent users. That condition, leukoplakia, can be a precursor of oral cancer. About 10 years ago, sanguinarine was dropped from all Viadent products.
Ironically, bloodroot may yet have a future as a cancer fighter. Research is under way to explore bloodroot’s ability to stop the proliferation of human cancer cells.
Researchers are also looking into bloodroot’s potential as a pesticide. Early tests suggest sanguinarine is toxic to mosquito larvae.
Meanwhile, bloodroot has been used successfully in livestock feed, as a dewormer. One German producer of cattle and sheep feed has imported large amounts of wild-crafted bloodroot from Appalachia. A North Carolina firm is studying ways of cultivating the little plant to meet agricultural demand without jeopardizing the plant’s future. At present, bloodroot is not grown commercially anywhere in the world. It is considered at-risk, because of over-collection and habitat loss.
The arguments for and against bloodroot’s safety have nothing to do with the plant’s esthetic value. In my corner of Appalachia, it is one of the first wildflowers to bloom in spring. From late March to May (depending on the weather), it dapples dark slopes with white. Although each white flower is simply shaped and relatively small, only 1.5 inch in diameter, the little blooms often erupt in great profusion.
They share locale and blooming time with another at-risk native, the Large-Flowered Trillium. A hard, gray Appalachian winter makes the eye hunger for brightness. That early display of bloodroot and trillium flowers — sometimes poking above the last stubborn vestiges of snow — gives hope and stirs the soul.
Allen, Carl; “Dentists See Legacy of Discontinued Ingredient in Patients’ Mouths,” Research News, Ohio State University, 12/22/01, http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/viadent.htm
Barrett, Stephen, MD; “Don’t Use Corrosive Cancer Salves (Escharotics), Quackwatch, 1/1/11, www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/Cancer/eschar.html
Greenfield, Jackie, et al; “Bloodroot,” Horticulture Information Leaflets, NC State University, September 2006, www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-134.html
Predny, Mary L. and James L. Chamberlain; “Bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis): An Annotated Bibliography,” U.S. Forest Service, Southern Research Station, Asheville, NC, 2005,www.sfp.forprod.vt.edu/sfpdoc8.pdf