Bloodroot, Gift of the Ants
Bloodroot's seed pods
There's one Bloodroot in the shady garden outside my living room window. It's been three years since I planted it, from a bulb that my friend Care gave me.
This year it bloomed for the first time. It made lovely white flowers. Each flower came up wrapped around the stem like a flag around a pole, and a single leaf held the entire assemblage together. After each blossom opens, its leaf unfurls.
The flowers lasted only a few days. Then they were replaced by two small pods. The pods grew, and last week one of the pods opened when I wasn't looking. The seeds were gone.
Stuck to the seed
I looked carefully around the plant's base for them but found nothing. I'd missed them completely. So I secured the second pod in a see-through, organza bag. That way, if I missed the moment again when the pod opened, maybe I'd catch the seeds in the bag.
It worked! Yesterday that second pod split. I recovered 17 red seeds.
Each seed had something stuck to it — a white, gooey-looking attachment. Like something that might have been made out of rubber cement. Kind of curved around the seed and firmly attached. This thing, I learned, is called a food body. Food for ants.
The big win-win
Ants gather the seeds and take them back to the nest. Not for the sake of the seeds themselves, but for that food body. It is something that appeals to ants. Probably it's sweet, and I was tempted to taste one, though perhaps it was too small a quantity for my tongue to detect. In any case, I desisted, because I've heard that Bloodroot is poisonous.
Not poisonous to ants, clearly! They feed the food-body attachments, known as elaiosomes, to their baby ants. The ants then drag away the actual seeds, in which they have no interest. They drop the seeds in their dump.
An ant dump turns out to be the perfect location and medium for sprouting new Bloodroots from seeds. And in this way the ants serve to disperse the plant. Now isn't that a nice transaction?
This kind of propagation by ants goes by the term myrmecochory, which is my favorite word for the day. Myrmecochory is a strategy used by many unrelated plants. Apparently the plant kingdom has arrived at this adatation independently numerous times.
The food body is called an elaiosome. It means a fatty body, but the payoff for the ants can be fats, proteins, or sugar.
The seed with elaisome attached, comprising genetic material and a method of dispersal, is a diaspore.
Stratification — cold / warm / cold
I'm going to be watching that area of my garden for new Bloodroot plants. However, it may be 2024 before the seeds from the first pod germinate. Before a Bloodroot seed sprouts, usually it needs to go through a winter outdoors in the damp and cold, then a summer outdoors in the damp and warm, and then a second winter outdoors. It might be possible to fool the seed into germinating in one year by giving it an artificial 3-month winter in the fridge, then 2-3 months in a warm place, followed by another three months in the fridge.
So if I started now, in early June, I could have seeds ready to germinate next spring. I think I'll try that with 6 of my 17 seeds. I'll try another 6 seeds in a pot in the growing box, where they will experience the seasons naturally (but protected from the darling digging chipmunks), and the remaining 5 seeds in a shaded garden setting under the big oak tree. Seventeen seeds are really not enough seeds to do a good experiment, but it might turn up some interesting results.
Chimpunks are capricious and merciless. They don't eat Bloodroot. It's poisonous. But for some reason they dig them up. So when I plant one, I put a wire cage around it for the first year or two. Maybe the ground has to seem firm and not look like someone has been having a good time digging there. So here's my photo of the leaf of the Bloodroot, in its protective cage. You can just make out the small, forming pod on the right side of the leaf.
It's a rather pretty leaf, and it doesn't dissolve right away at the first breath of summer like so many spring ephemerals. I would enjoy having the leaves around to admire for a few months.
Where and when does Bloodroot grow?
Bloodroot lives in woods. It emerges very early in spring and blooms before the trees wake up. This way, the plant gets to make us of the spring sunlight still coming through the bare branches.
The map shows the native range of Bloodroot. The light green color shows counties where it is found growing wild. This map was produced by The Biota of North America Program (BONAP).
The names of Bloodroot
Full common name:
— Diane Porter, Fairfield, Iowa, June 3, 2022
See more of Diane's blogposts about plants