Genus: Sanguinaria, Botanical Latin < sanguis Latin, blood. The French is sang dragon, dragon’s blood. All its names refer to the red dye that can be extracted by making a powder of the dried rhizome of this member of the poppy family native to eastern North America. White pioneers learned from First Peoples to make a red dye for clothing and woven baskets. Bloodroot also produced a ceremonial red face paint.
Family: Papaveraceae, the poppy family, a large group of annual, biennial, and perennial herbs < papaver, Latin, poppy. The word was borrowed into Old English as popig and by Middle English had become popi. Cognate is the Greek word for poppy juice, opion, which is a diminutive of Greek opos, vegetable juice or sap. Both are related as well to Latin papaver, and all these Latin and Greek terms may be related to a Mediterranean root with a reflex in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as peqer ‘poppy seed.’ Of course, we know the Greek noun better in its Latin form of opium, the poisonously addictive, poppy-based narcotic that has destroyed so many of its users.
Species: Sanguinaria canadensis blooms late in April or early in May, with a single, short-lived, waxy, white flower, and does best in the rich soil of shaded woods. By midsummer the plant has completely died down. There is a bloodroot with a double flower, shown below, that can make an attractive addition to the shade garden, if care is taken with soil preparation.
Other common names: Dragon’s Blood, Tetterwort, Redroot
Uses of the Plant: By the very earliest English visitors to North America bloodroot was called tetter-wort. Tetter is an Old English word for any of various skin diseases like ringworm, impetigo, and eczema. Extract of Sanguinaria was used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to treat warts and nasal polyps. A British doctor, J.W. Fell, read about the native peoples along the shores of Lake Superior who treated skin cancers with red sap of bloodroot and he tested it to his satisfaction in the 1850s.
In Russia, bloodroot is a folk remedy for skin diseases too. The Rappahannock people of eastern North America made tea from bloodroot as a specific against rheumatism. Infusions of most parts of this plant are emetic to humans, so care must be taken in brewing. Other eastern First Nations peoples applied the crimson roots of Sanguinaria directly to decayed teeth as a remedy for toothache. Plant members of the poppy family contain many physiologically active substances that man has extracted for various medical uses. Bloodroot extracts are still sold today as specifics to increase saliva production (expectorants) and for other purposes upon which traditional medicine sometimes frowns.
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