Binomial: Sanguinaria canadensis (san-gwen-AIR-ee-uh)
Family: Papaveraceae (pah-pah-ver-AY-see-ee), the Poppy Family

Bloodroot is one of our special spring ephemerals.  That single flower with its 8 or so brilliant white petals would be a pretty sight any time of the year, but during these final days of drabness it is dazzling.  Be forewarned though that once it is pollinated the flower only remains for a day or two.  So make sure you don’t wait too long to admire them.

Sanguinaria canadensis is Bloodroot’s proper binomial, but we can leave off the “canadensis” because it’s the only species in the genus.  In other words, Sanguinaria is a monotypic genus. (There are also some people with one name, such as the mononymous singer “Cher”, the Japanese emperor “Hirohito”, and the magician “Teller”. )

Speaking of “magic”, the poppy family is the home of potent alkaloids that give us opium, heroin, codeine and morphine.  So poppies aren’t for eating. Remember what happened to Dorothy and her friends when they ran through the poppy field on their way to the Emerald City? 

Bloodroot has some interesting alkaloids, including “sanguinarine”.  Among its many uses, sanguinarine was once used in dentistry.  Remember Colgate’s Viadent toothpaste and mouth rinse?  They contained sanguinarine as an antibacterial and anti-plaque agent.  Unfortunately it was later found that people who used Viadent products were almost ten times more likely to develop white precancerous lesions (leukoplakia) in their mouths than those who didn’t use them.  Once again, poppies aren’t for eating.

Bloodroot’s genus name “Sanguinaria” comes from the Latin “sanguis” meaning “blood”.  So “Sanguinaria” is an apt name because slicing open the root reveals a deep red color.  In fact cutting any part of the plant produces an orangish liquid. 

“Milky sap” is one of the identifying features of the Poppy family.  But “milky sap” usually means “bad news” to all of us non-poppies.  Just look at some of the other “milky sap” families like the dogbanes (including Milkweed and Oleander) and the spurges (including Poinsettias).  Nobody would want to munch on those!  (Actually, it isn’t the sap itself that is milky.  The milky latex is in a different plumbing system – a defensive one.  The milky plants still have a life-sustaining vascular system like the non-milky plants have.)

The Bloodroot leaf is very strange-looking, which makes it easy to identify long after it has lost its only flower (yes, each plant has only one leaf and one flower).  There’s a lot of variation in Bloodroot’s leaf and flower shape.  (In the past some taxonomists tried to classify these variations as different subspecies.)

For those unfamiliar with the Bloodroot plant, please watch this simple, clear, lovingly-presented VIDEO (8:16) by Angelyn Whitmeyer. 

Bloodroot seeds aren’t the tiny “poppy seeds” that we’re used to seeing on our bagels.  Instead they’re larger, lighter in color, and have a fatty appendage attached to them called an “elaiosome” (eh-LY-uh-sohm) that ants love.  The ants aren’t interested in the seed itself. But since the elaiosome is so strongly cemented to the seed, the ants have to drag the whole seed back to their nest to enjoy their fatty treat. Meanwhile, the discarded seed will eventually germinate in their waste pile.

This plant-animal “mutualism” is how some ants get their early spring sustenance at a time when the pickings are slim.  It’s also how many of our spring ephemerals get their seeds dispersed at a time when fallen leaves interfere with other means of dispersal.  In addition to the Bloodroot, other species with elaiosomes include the Celandine Poppy, Spring Beauty, Dutchman’s Breeches, Violets, Wild Ginger, Trout Lilies, Trilliums, Anemones, Primroses and Hepaticas. has rich photos of Sanguinaria, including a vivid one of seeds with their attached elaiosomes.  And from the other side of the river, always has beautiful descriptions.

If we can look beyond its toxins, the Bloodroot Poppy is a most fascinating St. Louis plant.

Flower Features of Bloodroot


A single flower that emerges with a single leaf.


Calyx: 2 light-green sepals that fall off when the flower opens
Corolla: 8-16 white petals (as a family, the Papaveraceae usually has 4 or some multiple of 4 petals)


Stamens: many stamens with prominent yellow anthers


Ovary: superior position
Carpels: 2 fused carpels forming a single chamber with a single prominent style
Stigma: divided
Fruit: single-chambered ovary matures into a small, football-shaped, 2-valved capsule with small seeds (as with other Papaveraceae.)

Flower Spotter Week 01 (March 20-26)

Where to find Bloodroot (please protect the plants in our natural areas):

Please click to see a list of all our St. Louis Papaveraceae plants.