Native Canadian flowers for early spring

Stephen Westcott-Gratton

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sanguinaria photo by Stpehen Westcott-Gratton 22 Apr 2017
A self-seeded patch of pristine white bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in full bloom. (Photos by Stephen Westcott-Gratton)


Last weekend I decided to bite the bullet and tidy up a derelict corner of my backyard, hidden behind the garden shed. It was a tangle of lilac suckers, escaped ‘Robustissima’ Japanese anemones and — to my astonishment — a self-seeded patch of pristine white bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis, Zone 3) in full bloom. Apparently benign neglect can sometimes be a good thing.

Indigenous from Nova Scotia to Manitoba, bloodroot is a highly variable species; it’s one of my favourite springtime natives. I grow the semi-double form that typically produces flowers with 16 petals instead of the usual eight. This semi-double type was first documented in 1732, but it’s clearly prone to reverting back to its eight-petaled single form when propagated from seed. Bloodroot increases vegetatively (or asexually) via creeping rhizomes and sexually by ant-dispersed seeds. Thank you ants!

Seeming to spring up overnight, the tightly furled leaves of bloodroot give rise to dazzling white blooms with prominent golden stamens. Once the flowers have been fertilized, the petals drop and the attractive grey-green foliage expands to hide the maturing seedpods. Bloodroot grows best in moist woodland conditions with humus-rich soil in a shady location; when planted in hot, sunny sites, clumps go dormant in midsummer.

Gardeners with deep pockets will want to track down the show-stopping 60-petalled Multiplex bloodroot (S. c. forma multiplex ‘Plena’). First discovered in 1916 (Dayton, Ohio) as a naturally occurring mutation, Multiplex is slow to spread, but its sterile blooms last twice as long as the species type.

A member of the poppy family and the only species in its genus, bloodroot is named for the orange-red sap its roots exude when bruised or cut. First Nations artists used the sap as a dye, particularly in the construction of traditional river cane (Arundinaria gigantea) basketry. A refined form of bloodroot’s main alkaloid, “sanguinarine,” has been used commercially as a plaque-inhibiting agent in toothpastes and mouthwashes.

Hepatica blooming in April in the garden of Stephen Westcott-Gratton.
Hepatica blooming in April in Stephen Westcott-Gratton’s garden.


It’s always flattering when a favourite flower decides that your garden provides the perfect conditions for reproduction. It’s a botanical pat on the back for a job well done, and a nod to the state of your soil — hence the old saying “feed your soil, not your flowers.” So imagine how pleased I was when a single specimen of sharp-leaved hepatica began to raise a family in my rather bleak, north-facing front garden.

Notable for the pointed three-lobed leaves for which they are named, sharp-leaved hepaticas produce four-inch (10-cm)-tall flower stalks, each one crowned with a demure one-inch (2.5-cm)-wide white, pink or lavender flower. Plants are in bloom for up to four weeks, and as the last buds burst, fresh green foliage appears and older blooms begin to set seed.

Virtually maintenance free when provided with the woodland conditions they crave — a shady spot in rich organic soil amended with leaf mould and compost — deer-resistant hepaticas self-seed slowly but surely.

The 10 or so species in the genus Hepatica have always been difficult to tell apart, but modern DNA sequencing has cleared up a lot of the confusion. Connecticut woodland rock gardener H. Lincoln Foster (1906-89) was the first horticulturist to posit that “All hepaticas are but single variants of a singular circumpolar species with local variations in leaf colour,” and science has since proved him right.

Today, all hepaticas are considered to be varieties of H. nobilis, which previously only referred to European types. Native to Quebec and Ontario and hardy to Zone 4, sharp-leaved hepatica (formerly H. acutiloba) is now known as H. nobilis var. acuta, and lovely pale blue, pink or white H. americana — native from Nova Scotia to Manitoba and hardy to Zone 3 — is now H. n. var. obtusa. These revelations have caused botanists (and magazine editors) across the country to breathe a collective sigh of relief: No more hair splitting!

Most gardeners (myself included) are content to grow these demure springtime jewels simply for the sake of their flowers, but you may be amused to hear what naturalist William Turner had to say about them in 1658: “This herbe is good for the liver, and specially for the liver of new-maried yong men, which are desyrous of childer.” Do not try this at home.

What’s growing in your garden?

Do you grow bloodroot or hepatica in your Canada 150 garden?

Gardening in the summer of Canada's 150th
Editor’s Note: This weekly series by Stephen Westcott-Gratton celebrates Canada’s 150th birthday in summer 2017. New posts are published Wednesdays.
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13 thoughts on “Native Canadian flowers for early spring”

  1. Love my bloodroot, first -lace I run too. The spring but for some reason it didn’t come up this year. Has it just wore itself out?

  2. I am delighted beyond delight when I see the first bloodroot flowers in my garden. That pure pure white is absolutely a balm to the Soul after a long winter. I have been successful in moving little pieces throughout my woodland garden in the back where it is now spreading quite happily amongst trilliums, hepaticas and ferns. Thank you for a lovely article. Now, if only spring would hurry up and arrive!

  3. I have grown both the single bloodroot as well as the ‘multiplex’ – and as a cautionary tale, a friend dearly wished a piece of ‘multiplex’, so I dug up a piece without disturbing the clump and gave it to her. And mine didn’t come up again, ever. So, after a few years I went to her and requested a piece back, which she gave me, and it now back in the garden, in a different setting, and doing beautifully. So don’t disturb it – ever!

    I also have hepatica nobilis in the garden, where it has set up a lovely colony of true blue flowers. I am truly blessed.

  4. Hi , In the eighty’s, along with the late Jim French, I became one of the founding directors of the Canadian Wildflower Society. I was a gardening heretic in those days as I had over 100 native species in my garden, one of which was the Green dragon. These faithful plants became the sole subject matter in my painting as I am a watercolour artist. Those years were filled with joy and hope and are fondly remembered.

  5. I run a gardening business and I was just noting both of these specimens while out and about this past week…the blood root in a secluded spot along the Saugeen River and the hepatica in a client’s garden…she did not know what it was and I was able to identify it for her…..beautiful plants for any garden! Great article. It’s a eureka moment when you ‘find’ gems in the garden.

    • Hi Jennifer,
      Thank you for your generous comments–and yes, I couldn’t agree more: It’s always gratifying to be able to identify a gardener’s “mystery plant.” That way they can research it themselves and get to know it in a way that’s impossible if it’s just “those little white flowers that pop up every spring.” And as a garden professional, you’ll also know that it’s especially important when assessing neglected gardens and deciding what to keep and what to toss! Hope you have a happy, satisfying Canada 150 season!

  6. Loved your article. We built a new house and before the grader could get into our woods in our back yard, we went hunting for hepatica. We have pink, white and purple, just love them. They are the first flowers to come out in our woods. We also have the single blood root, wild ginger , aneome, soloman’s seal and red, white and one purple trillium, ferns and the birds planted a jack in the pulpit and also a meadow rue. We really like to have native plants and trees. Can hardly wait to see the gardens filling in with my hostas.

    • Hello Betty,
      Thank you for your kind comments. Your woodland garden sounds marvellously diverse: In addition to bloodroot and hepatica, I too grow wild ginger (Asarum canadense), Solomon’s seal (the variegated variety) and several trillium species. And I started out with one Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and now have dozens–so watch out! (But you can never have “too many”!). So glad that you have so many wonderful native flowers growing in your woodland garden–which will become increasingly lovely with the passage of time.

  7. Bloodroot is my absolute favourite spring flower and hepatica is a close 2nd. They even beat out mertensia! I saw a double bloodroot in a garden Center last year that excited me. I just moved to the country and am dealing with SUN & WIND… have to make myself a shade garden retreat under the pine forest and put bloodroot and hepatica in!

    • Sounds like a fantastic idea, Gail! My only advice would be to make sure that you keep new transplants well watered while they’re becoming established–the surface soil in pine forests tends to be on the dry side, and roots need time to spread. But think of the dozens of wonderful native plants that will thrive in your location once they’ve successfully staked their claim. Mertensia included 😉

  8. Another great article Stephen! Looking forward to the rest of this series. I just found some bloodroot in my yard as well, didn’t even know it was there. Spring cleaning of the garden and yard is always wonderful when you find a new spring bloom!

    • Hi Cyndi,
      Yes, finding a new patch of flowers that the ants planted is a total bonus. I’ve also found a few stray bulbs that the squirrels were landscaping with last fall!


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