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.
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?