This Toxic, Nectarless Flower is Spread by Ants

We took a trip to Mille-Lacs Kathio State Park for Mother’s Day, and while walking along the Kathio Landmark Trail, we spotted this little white flower. I’ll admit, it doesn’t exactly look like anything special—just your standard white flower with a yellow center and green leaves— but its generic appearance hides a spectacular truth.

This flower is called a Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. Why? Well, here’s why:

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Yes, I’m aware of my filthy fingers

Bloodroot is a perennial native to North America and blooms between March and May. It’s called Bloodroot because if you were to break open the stem or roots, it bleeds. If you’ve ever done so, congratulations, you are a murderer—just kidding. The “blood” is a sap and is a deep, rich, reddish-orange.

If you want to read more about their range or how to identify this plant, you can do that here. My focus today is on two peculiar traits of this flowers ecology: its toxicity and dependence on ants. I will, however, share one tantalizing taxonomic anecdote. The genus name for this flower is Sanguinaria. In its latin roots, the first part of that name comes from the word sanguis, meaning blood. You’ll see this pop up in other places like some bat scientific names, or the word sanguivore which means blood-eating, or even in Skyrim where the disease causing vampirism is called Sanguinare vampiris.

Bloodroot is one of surprisingly many plants whose seeds are spread by ants (called Myrmecochory). We don’t often think of ants in this way, though if you’ve ever seen A Bug’s Life, maybe you have.

 

The seeds of the bloodroot have a—I hate to use this word—fleshy structure called the elaiosome. It is high in fats and proteins and is the perfect fuel source for these tiny workaholics. Ants will take seeds back to their colony where they will dine on some and bring the rest to the nest for their larvae to enjoy so they can grow big and strong—relatively speaking, of course.

But here is the catch, the ants have no use for the rest of the seed, so they toss it aside, bringing it to the ant equivalent of a dump where they bring all of their other waste, frass, and, well, deceased. This nutrient rich garbage pail provides the perfect environment for the seeds to germinate and sprout into new plants.

As far as pollination is concerned, that is still left up to the usual suspects (bees and flies), though there’s a catch: bloodroot produces plenty of pollen to be picked up and spread about, but don’t produce any nectar. Meaning, bees and flies still do all of the work, but don’t get a sweet treat as their reward. Rude.

I mentioned before that bloodroot is toxic. Bloodroot produces alkaloid toxins, primarily sanguinarine. This toxin, if applied to the skin, may kill all of the tissue in the area resulting in a large scab called an eschar. If ingested, it can cause conditions such as epidemic dropsy, vomiting, and loss of consciousness. I would attach some images for your educational benefit, but due to the relative grossness of the imagery, I’ll leave looking up pictures to your discretion. Their have been medical uses of this in the past, and the FDA technically allows it use in certain quantities in toothpaste for its anti-bacterial properties, but it has great potential for harm, disfigurement, and possibly aiding in the development of oral cancer.

Claims of medical benefit should be seen as medical quackery and nothing more considering the risks.

 

 

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