In April’s Strengthening Sun

by | May 2, 2024

Above: Bloodroot flowers                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

By George Christie

There is a time in the spring when the sun has crept high enough to warm the leaf-strewn ground yet neither high enough nor long enough for it to bring forth the leaves of the woodland trees. This time varies from year to year, but we can say in Rhode Island, it is April, and not be too far off. In these few weeks there is a group of plants that used to fill our forest floors with flowers. So when someone tells us at the R.I. Natural History Survey they have found hundreds of one of these spring ephemerals, the response is pretty predictable, “Road trip!” 

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is one such spring ephemeral, a perennial that sends up single leaves and white flowers on short stems. In Rhode Island it is a species of concern, only found in a few locations and never in large numbers. That is until Kate, in northwestern Rhode Island, took it upon herself to clear off as much of the invasive barberry, burning bush and multi-flora rose as she could, not because she knew there was something beautiful underneath, but because she wanted to give more native plants a chance at growing.

Showing as an orchard on the 1939 aerial photo at RIGIS, by 1972 the orchard was gone, and native red cedar dotted the cleared area. Some years later, the land was cleared again, and then ignored for several years as the invasive plants overgrew the site. After Kate and her husband purchased the property, they realized the growth was so strong they needed help so, in 2015, they hired an invasive species removal specialist who cleared roughly half-an-acre of land to the east and south of their house.

What followed over the next several years was something outside any of our wildest dreams, as dozens, then hundreds, and now thousands of bloodroot plants sent up their flowers to confetti her meadow and woodland in white for several weeks. If I had to guess, this roughly 2-acre area cleared meadow and woodland in total is home to several thousand plants, each of which sends up multiple leaves and flowers. To put this into perspective, this one population represents probably around 90 of the entire population of bloodroot in the state. Having been to the site I can say it is truly magical, and we Rhode Islanders are so lucky Kate and her husband ended up on this piece of land and valued the native land enough to work to restore it.

Kate and her uncovered bloodroot.

The maples overhead will soon fill in with leaves, the woodland floor will fall back into midday shade and the seed pods alone will stand tall among the fallen petals and browning leaves. Soon ants will arrive to carry off the ripened seed and there will be little or nothing to show of all these plants. Not to worry though, the ants are only interested in a fatty, lipid filled outer covering known as the elaiosome. They eat this covering and put the seeds in their waste pile, where they germinate and start the next generation. Fortunately, Dr. James Waters, an expert on ants from Providence College, accompanied us to the site and confirmed the ant species that collects bloodroot seeds is present on the site.

Which begs the question, why are there so few of these plants in Rhode Island if they can occur in such massive numbers. We don’t really know. Kate’s thought is the bloodroot found a nice home under the apple trees, and enough of it survived the removal of the apple trees and the subsequent invasive species invasion to provide sufficient seed (and tuberous roots, by which it can spread vegetatively) to repopulate the area once sunlight was allowed to reach the soil surface. Perhaps not surprisingly, the soil itself seems tailor-made for bloodroot – well watered but with good drainage and sloping to the east and south, optimal for spring sun. The wooded area is mostly deciduous trees, perfect for spring ephemerals, and just rocky enough to further discourage any significant alterations. 

Fortunately for us all, Kate is committed to a program of invasive species control, judicious native plant additions, and benign neglect, a course of action that works well for enhancing native plant populations in general. For, although most of us won’t uncover great swathes of native beauty, all of us can generate ecological benefits from our properties if we remove invasive species such as multiflora rose and bittersweet vine, and plant native perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees.  

We can also help by refusing to buy such horribly invasive plants as barberry and burning bush. Sure, I know, the “improved” varieties on the market are “sterile” according to their producers (and profitable according to their accountants) but long-term studies have shown sterile is just another word for plants that produce fewer seeds starting later in life. 

But forget the false advertising claims. The reality is every non-native plant we plant is another lost opportunity to reconstruct the health of Rhode Island soils, the populations of Rhode Island bees and the songs of Rhode Island birds. One cannot help but note that Kate’s job of caring for her bloodroot extravaganza would be so much easier if we had just enjoyed what we had instead of constantly accepting the destructive advice of “experts” pushing new and unproven products at the behest of their employers.

As it is, we have come so far on our twisted garden quest that novelty now exists not in the exotic, but in the disappearing native. I have stood in countless arrays of thousands of daffodils and tulips, but, until last week, had never stood amongst so many bloodroot. Perhaps, in time, if we listen to what our land is telling us, bloodroot will once again be a common plant, and I won’t have to protect it by not telling you more about who Kate is, or where she actually lives. We can dream.

Bloodroot on the woodland floor.

George Christie studied entomology and landscape architecture and  has worked in mosquito control, environmental education and garden design and plant sales. He currently works for the Rhode Island Natural History Survey managing their rare species database.

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Chris R.
Chris R.
May 3, 2024 7:49 am

Thank you for another nice story, George! I never knew of Bloodroot, nor have I noticed them. I wonder, though, if I found a way to get some going in the wooded portion of our property, would the deer just nip them off like tulips as soon as they sprout, a la tulips?

George
George
May 3, 2024 9:35 pm
Reply to  Chris R.

My experience is limited, but the bloodroot populations I have seen show little deer browse. I tried it in my yard and it died out. It likes a soil a bit less acidic than many here in RI.

But I know Kate has deer on her property and the bloodroot does fine.

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