Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock


"Bloodroots, whose rolled-up leaves ef you oncurl
Each on em's cradle to a baby pearl."—

Photo by O. L. Foster.


Teacher's Story

"What time the earliest ferns unfold,

And meadow cowslips count their gold;

A countless multitude they stood,

A Milky Way within the wood."

—Danske Dandridge.

dropcap image NLY a few generations ago, and this land of ours was peopled by those who found it fitting to paint their bodies to represent their mental or spiritual conditions or intentions. For this purpose they had studied the plants of our forests to learn the secrets of the dyes which they yielded, and a dye that would remain on the flesh permanently, or until it wore off, was highly prized. Such a dye was found in the bloodroot, a dye appropriate in its color to represent a thirst for blood; and with it they made their war paint, and with it they ornamented their tomahawks to symbolize their sanguinary purpose.

The Indian warriors have passed away from our forests, and the forests themselves are passing away, but the bloodroot still lingers, growing abundantly in rich moist woods or in shaded areas in glades, borders of meadows and fence corners. Its beautiful white flowers open to the morning sun in early April, calling the hungry bees to come for pollen; for, like many other early flowers, it offers no nectar. Probably many of the little wild bees prefer pollen to nectar at this time of year, for it is an important element in the food of all kinds of bee brood. But the bloodroot's fragile blossoms are elusive and do not remain long; like their relatives, the poppies, their petals soon fall, and their white masses disappear like the snow-drifts which so recently occupied the same nooks.

The way the bloodroot leaf enfolds the flower-bud seems like such an obvious plan for protection, that we are unthinkingly prone to attribute consciousness to the little plants.

Not only does the leaf enfold the bud, but it continues to enfold the flower stem after the blossom opens. There are two sepals which enclose the bud, but fall off as the flower opens. There are ordinarily eight white petals, although there may be twelve; usually every other one of the eight petals is longer than its neighbors, and this makes the blossom rather square than circular in outline. There are many stamens, often 24, and the anthers are brilliant yellow with whitish filaments. The two-lobed stigma opens to receive pollen before the pollen of its own flower is ripe. The stigma is large, yellow, and set directly on the ovary, and is quite noticeable in the freshly opened blossoms. It is likely to shrivel before its home-grown pollen is ripe. The blossoms open wide on sunny mornings; the petals rise up in the afternoon and close at night, and also remain closed during dark, stormy days until they are quite old, when they remain carelessly open; they are now ready to fall to the ground at the slightest jar, leaving the oblong, green seed-pod set on the stem at a neat bevel, and perhaps still crowned with the yellowish stigma. The seed-pod is oblong and pointed and remains below the protecting leaf. There are many yellowish or brownish seeds.

When the plant appears above ground, the leaf is wrapped in a cylinder about the bud, and it is a very pretty leaf, especially the "wrong side," which forms the outside of the roll; it is pale green with a network of pinkish veins, and its edges are attractively lobed; the petiole is fleshy, stout and reddish amber in color. The flower stem is likewise fleshy and is tinged with raw sienna; the stems of both leaf and flower stand side by side, and are held together at the base by two scapes with parallel veins. Later in the season, the leaf having done its full duty as a nurse waxes opulent, often measuring six inches across and having a petiole ten inches long. It is then one of the most beautiful leaves in the forest carpet, its circular form and deeply lobed edges rendering it a fit subject for decorative design.

The rootstock is large and fleshy, and in it is stored the food which enables the flower to blossom early, before any food has been made by the new leaves. There are many stout and rather short roots that fringe the rootstock. Once in clearing a path through a woodland, we happened to hack off a mass of these rootstocks, and we stood aghast at the gory results. We had admired the bloodroot flowers in this place in the spring, and we felt as guilty as if we had inadvertently hacked into a friend.



Photographed by Verne Morton.

Lesson CXIX


Leading thought—The bloodroot has a fleshy rootstock, in which is stored food for the nourishment of the blossom in early spring. The flower bud is at first protected by the folded leaf. The juice of the rootstock is a vivid light crimson, and was used by Indians as a war paint. The juice is acrid, and the bloodroot is not relished as food by grazing animals, but it is used by us as a medicine.

Method—The bloodroot may, in the fall, be transplanted in a pot of woods earth, care being taken not to disturb its roots. It should be placed out of doors in a protected place where it may have natural conditions, and be brought to the schoolroom for study in March, so that the whole act of the unfolding of leaves and flowers may be observed by the pupils. Otherwise the questions must be given the pupils to answer as they find the plants blossoming in the woods in April. The blossoms are too fragile to be successfully transported for study at home or school.


1. At what time of year does bloodroot blossom? In what situations does it thrive?

2. What do we see first when the bloodroot puts its head above the soil? Where is the flower bud? How is it protected by the leaf? How does the leaf hold the flower stem after the flower is in blossom?

3. Study the flower. How many sepals has it? What is their color? What is the position of the sepals when the flower is in bud? What is their position when the flower opens? How many petals? What is their color and texture? Describe the position of the petals in the bud and in the open flower. Look straight into the flower; is its shape circular or square?

4. Do the flowers close nights and during dark days? Do the flowers longest open do this? Describe how the petals and sepals fall.

5. Describe the stamens. What is the color of the anthers? Of the pollen? Describe the pistil. Does the two-grooved stigma open before the pollen is shed, or after? What insects do you find visiting the bloodroot?

6. Sketch or describe a bloodroot leaf as it is wrapped around the stem of the flower. How are both flower stem and leaf petiole protected at the base? Describe or sketch a leaf after it is unfolded and open. Describe the difference between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf. What sort of petiole has it? Break the petiole; what sort of juice comes from it? Describe and measure the leaf later in the season; do they all have the same number of lobes?

7. Break a bit off the root of the plant and note the color of the juice.

8. Compare the bloodroot with the poppies; do you find any resemblance in habits?

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