Bloodroot Cultivation & Growing Guide.

Originally published in The Forest Farmers Handbook: A Beginners Guide to Growing and Marketing At-Risk Forest Herbs by United Plant Savers & Rural Action (available here).

Overview

bloodroot
(Sanguinaria canadensis)
Papaveraceae

Bloodroot is one of the most iconic and well-known spring wildflowers found in the deciduous forests of eastern North America. As an ephemeral species, bloodroot is one of the first plants to emerge and bloom in the spring, thus ensuring sufficient time for plants to capture and store energy while there is abundant sunlight available on the forest floor (Hayden, 2005). The crimson-colored rhizome, which produces a blood-red sap when cut, contains relevant concentrations of eight medicinally active alkaloids (Croaker et al., 2016) and has been used both commercially and eclectically in toothpastes, salves, and other preparations (Persons and Davis, 2014). Bloodroot is capable of developing dense populations through both rhizome branching and seed production (Furgurson et al., 2012) with ants being the primary seed dispersers (Predny and Chamberlain, 2005). Bloodroot seeds have a specialized appendage called an elaiosome, which serves as a lipid rich food source for the ants (Pengelly and Bennett, 2011). The ants gather the seeds, take them to the nest, eat the elaiosome, and then discard the seeds in old galleries and refuse tunnels where they can germinate in a relatively rich and protected environment (Predny and Chamberlain, 2005). Commercial demand for bloodroot continues to put pressure on wild populations as historically low market prices have made cultivation cost prohibitive (Furgurson et al., 2012; Burkhart and Jacobson, 2009), underscoring the need to develop value-added marketing initiatives (e.g. Forest Grown Verification), direct marketing opportunities, and other mechanisms to support intentional and sustainable production.

Site Selection

Bloodroot is typically found growing on north, northeast, and east facing aspects under a mature forest canopy that provides approximately 50%-80% shade (Braly, 2007; Marino et al., 1997; Davis and Dressler, 2012). Within these baseline conditions, bloodroot prefers sites with well-drained soils that are rich in organic matter, thick leaf litter, and a slightly acidic soil pH (5.5.–6.5) (Davis and Dressler, 2012; Pengelly and Bennett, 2011). If the site and/or soil are not well drained, bloodroot rhizomes will tend to rot. For this reason, selecting a gently to moderately sloped planting site can help facilitate drainage and improve the overall conditions for bloodroot cultivation. As previously discussed, the presence of companion plants and other indicator species can also be used to identify suitable growing sites. Species that are commonly found growing in association with bloodroot include, but are not limited to, tulip poplar, sugar maple, basswood, and magnolia (Braly, 2007) as well as spicebush, trillium, goldenseal, ginseng, and Jack-in-the-pulpit (Apsley and Carroll, 2004).

Site Preparation for Wild-Simulated and Woods-Cultivated Production

To prepare the growing site for a wild-simulated planting, start by removing any fallen branches, rocks, or other debris that will interfere with the planting process. If necessary, selectively remove small trees and shrubs, or prune low hanging branches to improve airflow and optimize light conditions. If invasive species are present, they should be manually removed and/or controlled prior to planting.

For woods-cultivated plantings, mark the boundaries of your planting beds to prevent damage to surrounding vegetation during the site preparation process. Beds can be made to any size and dimension but should be narrow enough to allow for easy maintenance and management (approx. 4’-5’ wide). Once the beds have been marked, remove, thin, or prune competitive and suppressive vegetation within the planting area. After the vegetation has been removed, apply any necessary soil amendments, and then shallowly till the beds with a heavy-duty tiller or tractor to loosen the top 3”- 6” of soil.

Propagation from Seed

Bloodroot seedlings can be propagated using multiple techniques, including sowing seed in a cold frame greenhouse, sowing in a prepared woodland nursery bed, or by sowing directly in a wild-simulated production site (Davis and Greenfield, 2006). Seedlings that have been established in a prepared nursery beds should be transplanted to a permanent location after two years’ growth (Cech, 2002) and should reach harvestable size 5-7 years after transplanting (Davis, 2012).

Seeds can be collected from reproductive plants approximately 4-5 weeks after the flowers die-back (early to mid-June) and as the seed pod begins to fade from green to yellow. The narrow elliptical seed pods measure approximately 3” long and can contain twenty-five seeds or more. Bloodroot seed pods are spring-loaded and eject the seeds as they open (Croaker et al., 2016), making collection difficult if not timed properly (Davis and Dressler, 2012). For best results, collect whole pods as they approach maturity, being careful not to rupture the capsule. Cut the seed stalk as close to the ground as possible, so the seeds continue to receive support/nutrients from the remaining stalk, ensuring that they will fully mature. After collecting, seeds can be removed by hand as the pods dry, or they can be hung upside down in a paper bag with a thin layer of slightly damp sand or potting mix lining the bottom, where the seeds can be retrieved and sown. Maturing pods can also be covered with fine mesh or nylon bags that will catch the seeds as they are ejected from the pods (Persons and Davis, 2014).

Seeds should never be allowed to dry out and should be planted as soon as possible after collection (Davis and Greenfield, 2006). If properly handled and planted soon after collection, the seeds will stratify naturally and should germinate the following spring. It is possible that some seeds will exhibit an extended dormancy and will not germinate until the second spring following dispersal (Albrecht and McCarthy, 2011). Plant seeds approximately ¼”- ½” deep in a prepared woodland nursery bed or wild-simulated production site, and cover with 2” of leaf mulch (Albrecht and McCarthy, 2011; Davis and Dressler, 2012).

Propagation from Rhizome Cuttings

Figure 7

Bloodroot is most commonly propagated by subdividing mature rhizomes. Rhizomes should be propagated in the fall of the year as the plants are entering winter dormancy, which is indicated when the leaves begin to yellow and fade. As illustrated in figure 7, rhizomes should be divided into 2” long segments, each with several fibrous roots and a dormant bud whenever possible. The presence of a viable bud has been shown to be essential to the growth and development of young rootlets. Davis (2012) and Nivot et al. (2008) reported that rootlets with a bud present at the time of planting had emergence rates of 89% and 95% respectively during the first growing season whereas 90% of rootlets without a terminal bud exhibited delayed emergence until the second growing season (Nivot et al., 2008).

Whole rhizomes and newly propagated rootlets are best planted in the fall but may also be planted in the spring if you have planting stock left over from the previous year. Plant rhizomes and rootlets approximately 2”-3” deep and spaced 6” apart (Persons and Davis, 2014). After planting, cover the area with 2”-3” of leaf litter.

Maintenance

Once established, plantings will require periodic maintenance, such as inspecting for signs of herbivory, disease, and mortality, as well as pruning or weeding to maintain optimal growing conditions. Deer, groundhogs, and turkey have all been reported to browse bloodroot flowers and/or foliage and can have a significant impact on seed production. Several diseases have also been found to impact bloodroot plantings, and a comprehensive disease management protocol is recommended in case an outbreak occurs. In order to encourage optimal growth, growers have reported that bloodroot plantings will benefit from an annual application of a low NPK fertilizer, micronutrient blend, and/or composted leaf mulch.

Pests and Disease

As with many other forest herbs that are brought under cultivation, bloodroot is susceptible to infection by a variety of fungal pathogens, which most commonly include leaf blights (e.g. Alternaria and Botrytis) and root rot diseases (e.g. Pythium) (Davis and Dressler, 2012; Persons and Davis, 2014). It is important to note that these diseases are not commonly observed in wild bloodroot populations, and typically arise in cultivated plantings when growing conditions are less than optimal, such as inadequate airflow and poor soil drainage or when plantings become concentrated and overcrowded (Davis and Dressler, 2012; Persons and Davis, 2014). If a disease outbreak does occur, remove blighted leaves and infected roots from the growing site, and spot treat the affected area with on organic fungicide once the pathogen has been accurately identified (Davis and Dressler, 2012). In addition to fungal diseases, slugs, deer, and turkey have been observed to defoliate or browse bloodroot foliage, which can reduce seed production, slow root growth, and contribute to decreased yields over time. Slugs can be controlled with beer traps or diatomaceous earth, but fencing will be required to fully exclude deer, turkey, and other browsers from planted areas (Davis and Dressler, 2012).

Keep in mind that not all insects are pests. As previously mentioned, bloodroot shares a symbiotic relationship with ants, which are the primary dispersers of bloodroot seeds. So, if ants are observed in bloodroot plantings, they should not be of concern to the grower.

Harvesting

Bloodroot is typically harvested in the fall of the year as the plant begins to enter winter dormancy but can also be harvested in the spring. Research has shown that the concentration of medicinally active alkaloids in the root are also at peak levels shortly after the flower has bloomed and the seed pod begins to develop. If medicinal potency and alkaloid content are important selling points for your customers, then spring harvesting may also be a viable option. If harvested in the spring, the active growing tip of the rhizome should be subdivided and replanted in order to accommodate for harvesting before the plant had the chance to complete its reproductive cycle.

Depending on how the plants were propagated (e.g. direct seed vs. rhizome), harvest roots after 4-8 years growth, taking care not to damage the root (Croaker et al., 2016).

Washing

After harvesting, roots should be washed thoroughly to remove all dirt, debris, and foreign root material. Sometimes breaking the root may be necessary to fully dislodge all unwanted materials. Briefly soak roots in a bucket of water to soften the dried dirt and debris clinging to the root, and then spread the roots on a wire mesh screen, and spray with a medium-pressure hose. Mechanized or hand powered root washers can also be used and may be a better alternative for washing large volumes of root material (Davis and Dressler, 2012).

Drying

Roots must be properly dried in order to preserve product quality and ensure the integrity of the product during long-term storage. To dry, spread roots evenly on a wire mesh screen in a dark, well-ventilated area with adequate airflow where temperatures can be maintained at 85 – 95F for 3-7 days, or until completely dried (Davis and Dressler, 2012). In humid locations, drying temperatures may have to be increased to fully drive off excess moisture from the roots (Davis, 2016), but should not exceed 105F to preserve product quality. Larger roots can be cut or sliced into smaller pieces for more thorough drying and should not decrease the value of the roots, unless otherwise specified by the buyer. During the drying process roots should be regularly inspected for any signs of mold or spoilage, and if detected, the infected pieces should be removed from the room. Depending on the water content at the time of harvest, roots will lose approximately 75% of their fresh weight during the drying process (Davis and Dressler, 2012). During this time the exterior color of the roots will darken slightly, turning from reddish to brown, but the inside of the root should maintain a vibrant reddish color. To determine when the drying process is complete, select several average-sized roots from the batch, and then break them in half. The roots should snap cleanly when fully dried but should not be overly brittle. After drying, roots should be packaged in appropriate containers (e.g. glass, mylar bags, vacuum bags, etc.) and stored in a cool, dark, and preferably climate controlled environment to reduce the likelihood of problems associated with humidity and moisture, which can cause the roots to degrade rapidly.