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In Context #2 (Fall, 1999, pp. 12-13); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Bloodroot through the Year
Craig Holdrege

Figures 1 - 6: bloodroot
in various stages of growth

One of our aims at The Nature Institute is to learn from nature. We have to get out and observe, actively taking in what nature can show us. I spend a fair amount of time, mainly in the spring, observing plants. In this In Context I'd like to introduce you to bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), an early spring forest wildflower. (A few illustrations of this plant were in our first issue.)

My method is straightforward: I go out repeatedly to observe, sketch and often photograph the plant. Back inside I try to reform the image I obtained from my observations. It's quite easy to follow the plant in its early stages, where everything changes rapidly and holds one's interest. After the flowering stage it takes much more will to stick with the plant—to see it through the year. Only in the whole cycle of the year can the plant really show itself. How much it reveals depends on the care one takes in observing and on one's ability to connect the separate observations in order to bring the actual process of transformation alive. Only then does the character of the plant become more tangible. So here's a glimpse of bloodroot through the year.

In early April the floor of northeastern forests is light brown from the dead leaves covering the ground. If you get down on your knees and look carefully, you can see buds of various wildflowers pushing up through the leaf litter. One of the earliest wildflowers to emerge in spring in a bottomland woods with rich soil is bloodroot. A small grayish-green bud grows through the leaf litter (Figure 1).

Within a week or two it has grown to be about four inches tall and a tender white "cap"—the flower bud—protrudes through an elongated protective sheath (Figure 2). This sheath reveals itself to be a leaf enwrapping the flower stalk. One must therefore imagine flower and leaf growing together out of the ground, the small flower bud enveloped by the infolded leaf. Taken in its momentary appearance, bloodroot is quite inconspicuous at this stage. But viewed as part of a process, the closed flower bud and the enwrapping leaf are powerful images of becoming. One is seeing the plant as yet-to-be, which gives it a fullness and tension that speaks of life and development.

The upward elongation of the flower stalk continues and if you enter the woods on a warm and sunny mid- to late-April afternoon, your attention will quickly be drawn to the wide-open and richly white radiance of bloodroot's blossoms (Figure 3). Usually eight petals radiate out from a center of yellow stamens. The blossom opens and closes daily for a few days. The petals fall off very easily (a typical characteristic of the poppy family, to which bloodroot belongs) and one hard rainstorm can remove them all. At this ephemeral stage of the plant's development, the leaf has unfolded somewhat, but still surrounds the flower stalk. The gesture of openness and luminance in the flower thereby finds its contrast in the still-bud-like protective leaf. The plant is never fully open at one time.

Once the petals are gone, boodroot recedes more into the background. Other wildflowers begin to bloom and a carpet of green forms on the forest floor. The green leaf, flower stalk and fruit capsule blend in with this background. After flowering, bloodroot's single leaf unfolds fully and grows (Figure 4). The leaf stalk is about as long as the leaf itself (what botanists call the leaf blade). The blade is fairly upright and fans out into an overall roundish form with six to eight lobes. It is mid-May and the canopy of the forest is beginning to close overhead. We often do not realize that the forest floor has its peak in illumination in May before the trees are green. Even though the days continue to get longer there is increasingly less illumination on the forest floor. The wildflowers begin, as it were, their shady summer.

Whereas the development of bloodroot from bud to flower progressed rapidly, with each day showing visible changes—the changes we long for and are nourished by in spring—now everything slows down. Bloodroot's leaf blade continues to grow slowly throughout the spring and early summer, in contrast to those of many small spring wildflowers that decay soon after flowering. As the leaf grows, its orientation changes from upright to horizontal; this occurs simultaneously with the greening and closing of the tree canopy. The leaf blade takes on a flat funnel-shape (Figure 5). The flower stalk does not elongate after the petals fall off, so that the leaf now forms a canopy for the fruit capsule, just as the unfolding leaves of the trees form a canopy for the forest floor—a beautiful instance of a part mirroring a process in the whole. Moreover, we see how bloodroot's leaf is in a constantly changing relation to the flower, flower stalk, and then fruit.

By the end of June the fruit capsule at the tip of the flower stalk has swollen and rips open, revealing numerous small, round, dark-brown seeds, which soon fall to the ground (Figure 5). The flower stalk and capsule then dry up, shrivel, and decompose. Only the leaf is left above the ground. The leaf blade grows no more, but the leaf stalk continues to lengthen. Gradually the leaf blade comes to rest on the ground and begins to decay (Figure 6).

We're now at the end of August or early September.

When the tree foliage begins to turn color, bloodroot is no longer visible. The dark, orange-red rhizome under the ground has, however, also been undergoing changes. Flower and leaf buds have formed and remain dormant until early spring, when the cycle begins anew.

Original source: In Context (Fall, 1999, pp. 12-13); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

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