Pagakanihlok: Bloodroot

pagakanihlok bloodroot sokwakik 2020

Natami pagakanihlok tali Wantastegok Wajo wskisigwaniwi. The first bloodroot at Mount Wantastiquet in early spring.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is one of the earliest spring ephemerals, inhabiting moist, rich, soils in upland or floodplain deciduous forests. A solitary white flower with a golden center opens in the fleetingly-sunlit understory, before the leafy canopy overhead brings the shade of summer. The flowers close at night and sometimes bloom just before the single leaf joins it, each on its own stem; when the deeply-lobed leaf unfurls, it clasps the flower stalk like a cloak. Bloodroot likes to gather in groups, a small community huddled in the bright spring sunshine, celebrating the return of light and warmth.


This little harbinger is named for the bright red sap that oozes from the thick rootstock when it is broken open. The scarlet juice is traditionally used for a strong material dye, insect repellent, and body paint, as well as for several other medicinal purposes, although skin contact should be minimized due to alkaloids that may destroy tissue.*

This memorable naming characteristic appears in the Abenaki name for the plant as well, which is pagakanihlok. The word is compounded from ‘pagakan’ which signifies ‘blood’ with a connecting ‘-i-‘ plus the suffix ‘-hlok’ to indicate ‘where it comes out rapidly’, as in bleeding. The Penobscot use a similar term, pekahkánihlαk.

* It is a prime ingredient in the escharotic preparation known as black salve, an herbal skin cancer treatment that can cause permanent scarring or damage.


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4 thoughts on “Pagakanihlok: Bloodroot”

  1. So glad to see the bloodroot flower! Very dear flower to me. I am going to have to go check the places I usually encounter her…when we have a sunny day again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s my understanding that the residents of
    Tsenacommacah ( aka Powhatan Confederacy) highly valued this plant for its use as a body paint. Does it have to be processed on a certain way before applying to the skin? To negate a toxic effect?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You bring up a good point… the sap/juice of pagakanihlok that is used as a red/orange pigment can be highly toxic when applied sufficiently to the skin. That speaks directly to one of its uses in removing blemishes or growths. I , too, have often wondered how it was rendered safe, or if that is a matter of knowing proper amounts or duration of applications. It seems a little risky, without a proper understanding. If and until I learn better from someone qualified, I will continue to avoid that practice.


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