Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Bloodroot: Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 39

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis) is a pretty little plant that’s native to North America and blooms in spring from February to May. It’s also known as Canada puccoon, bloodwort, and pauson. (I hadn't ever heard of puccoon or pauson. Those names may be more in use in Canada.)
Bloodroot in bloom
In the wild, it has white flowers with yellow centers and roundish, multi-lobed green leaves. The flowers only last a few days, but the leaves form an attractive carpet effect on the forest floor

The showy double-petal version is used in ornamental garden plantings.

But beware! The sap of both versions of this plant is blood-red and extremely toxic. It is especially dangerous to dogs and cats, and herbivores generally avoid it.   

Bloodroot is found on the east coast of North America from Canada to Florida and its habitat extends to the Mississippi.
Bloodroot leaves form a carpet on the forest floor
The Algonquin and other Native Americans used it for a dye, especially for baskets, and in various medicines.

The plant produces a toxin called sanguinarine.  It’s found mostly in the rhizome root structure, which is sweet-potato orange when cut open. But the sap is so caustic it burns the skin on contact. In folk medicine, it was used as an antiseptic, and also to burn off warts and tumors.

Charlatans hawked a tincture of sanguinarine as a cancer cure, and “black salve” was sold widely as a cure for various skin ailments.  It is still available on the Internet, but is not recommended by the medical community.  

It’s been used in various types of medical quackery since the early 1800s.
18th century drawing of bloodwort with rhizome
In the mid 19th century four patients at Bellevue Hospital in New York died after drinking sanguinaria tincture they mistook for a more benign alcoholic beverage.

A cure-all called “Dr. Pinkard's Sanguinaria Compound” was sold as a “nerve tonic” that was supposed to cure everything from pneumonia to hepatitis, It's inventor, herbalist John Henry Pinkard was convicted in 1931 on charges of misrepresenting its powers, but due to his standing in the community, his fine was only $25.  

Sanguinaria is used more efficaciously to induce vomiting, reduce inflammation, and calm tooth pain. In toothpaste, it is said to reduce plaque and bacteria. Until 2001, it was an ingredient in an anti-plaque toothpaste called Viadent, which I used in the 1980s. Unfortunately, it was linked to a kind of oral cancer called leukoplakia, so it is no longer an ingredient in Viadent.

But other toothpastes do use it, so check the ingredients of your toothpaste carefully.
Ornamental double flowered bloodroot
Bloodroot is also still used in “holistic” medicine, but users should be aware that long term use or overdose is dangerous and can be fatal.

If you're writing a mystery with  a character who’s trying to kill off an eccentric herbalist or holistic practitioner, an overdose of bloodroot might do the trick and look like an accidental incident.

Although bloodroot and bloodroot tincture probably wouldn’t make ideal murder weapons, since sanguinaria is so caustic it immediately causes drooling, vomiting, eye irritation, dizziness and convulsions, which would signal the need for urgent medical attention. 

If the victim gets to a doctor, fluid therapy can flush the toxin out and an antiemetic can keep vomiting under control.

But untreated, the body will go into a coma. Death from organ failure soon follows.


  1. Wow - I'm wondering how the Native Americans used it as a dye without getting it on their skin. Interesting.

    1. Patricia--I have to assume they used knives and sticks to they wouldn't have to touch it. I think they made a bath of it and soaked the reeds they would make into baskets. But it must have been dangerous. Probably required a long apprenticeship to learn how to do it properly.

  2. I had hoped to copy your poison listing (overview), but found it discontinued? Gotta research later, as I am busy.

    Thank you, for all you share freely!

    1. Andre-- Thanks for pointing out that the series overview and my book of the month seem to have disappeared from this post. I'll try to repair it. Very odd.