Bloodroot, Ants, Activism, Herbalism
This article is dedicated to the memory of Robert Hoyt, a friend of mine who recently died. I knew Robert from my activist days, in what feels like another lifetime. Robert was a fantastic musician. He spent the 1990’s traveling the country and inspiring environmental activists with his eco-folk songs from coast to coast. He could be found singing his message on college campuses, at environmental gatherings, and at direct action sites where people were trying to protect the earth with their physical bodies by sitting in trees and blockading roads. I met Robert in 1994, and the roots of this story can be traced back to that year, a year that influenced my trajectory greatly. But let me start with the present, and the little patch of bloodroot growing in my backyard.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
I live in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. This area used to be predominantly farmland, and before that, the land of the Susquehannock and Piscataway people. I have a large vegetable garden, an herb garden, a newly established little woodland garden, and some untended areas along the edge of the lawn by the fence. It is in one of these untended areas that bloodroot decided to show up several years ago.
Its appearance was very welcome, like having an old friend show up. That is how I feel about lots of medicinal plants, especially wild ones. And while bloodroot does have medicinal properties, and an interesting history as one of the ingredients in what is sometimes called “black salve,” my interest in it is much less pragmatic. The reason I like bloodroot is that I simply like to be in its presence. It makes me feel good, the way it feels good to just sit with an old friend.
Last summer, as I was watched “my” patch of bloodroot flower and form seed pods, I was reading a book called The Seed Keeper, by Diane Wilson. The book follows several generations of Dakota women, exploring their relationship with seeds. The main character in the book had become totally disconnected from her heritage, yet when she felt seeds in her hand, something awoke inside her that had been dormant, just like a seed waiting for the right conditions to spring to life.
There is a passage in the book that describes the relationship between bloodroot seeds and ants, which piqued my curiosity. Since the book is a novel, I wanted to do my own research on this connection, and I found out that it was true. Bloodroot is a myrmechore, which means it relies on the dispersal of its seeds by ants. Trilliums, violets, and Dutchman’s breeches are other woodland flowering plants that also rely on this method of seed dispersal.
Here is how it works. There is a part of the seed called the elaiosome which contains fats, proteins, and other nutrients. This part of the seed attracts the ants via olfactory cues. The ants then harvest the seeds, bring them back to their nest, feed the elaiosome to their larvae, and discard the bare seed into their nitrogen-rich refuse pile either inside or outside the nest. It is a symbiotic relationship where the ants get food for their larvae, and the seeds in turn are dispersed and “planted” by the ants in rich soil that the ants themselves have made. Ants also play a role in turning and aerating the soil, allowing water and oxygen to reach plant roots.
Bloodroot seeds, with eliaosomes
This understanding of the role that ants play in our planet’s ecology is what brings me back to the year 1994. This was the year that I was introduced to environmental activism, as more than just writing letters, signing petitions, and sitting behind educational tables at Earth Day, but as a way of life, and as a community of people. It was also the year that I met Robert Hoyt, to whom this article is dedicated, and the year I attended my first two environmental gatherings.
The first gathering was the Heartwood Forest Council. Heartwood is an organization that was founded to protect the forests of the central hardwood region of the United States. Here I met people trying to lead simple homesteading lives, who instead found themselves involved in legal battles with the Forest Service, as they tried to protect the forests and rivers that surrounded their homes. I am still involved in Heartwood today, and a version of this article, called Ants and Plants, was published in the 2023 spring edition of Heartbeat.
The other gathering I attended that summer was the Earth First! Round River Rendezvous. Here I met a much more rag-tag group of hardcore environmental activists who were ready and eager to engage in direct action and civil disobedience.
During the Earth First! gathering I was invited to participate in something called a Council of All Beings. I had no idea what this was prior to participating. A group of us gathered in the woods. We were told to go off alone for a bit of time and to find something to connect with. Then we were supposed to come back to the group and speak for that entity, to give it a voice.
I wandered off, found a quiet place, and sat for a long time. Nothing was coming to me. I was getting nervous. I had no idea what I would say when we were called back to the group. Just before I heard the call to come back to the group, I saw a trail of ants walking along a log. I thought about it, and although I had no idea what kind of role ants might play in our environment, I was sure they did something necessary and important for the balance of our natural world, something that was probably being overlooked since they were so small. I came back to the circle and represented the voice of ant.
When I attended the Council of All Beings and decided to represent the ant, I didn’t know about myrmechorous plants, elaiosomes, or any scientific facts about the role ants play in ecosystems. Yet, somehow I did know. I knew it in my heart.
When it comes to herbal medicine, I think the same thing can be true. We can know that a plant has healing properties, and we can experience healing, without knowing all the science behind it. I do like the science, which often validates traditional uses of medicinal plants, sometimes leads to novel discoveries and breakthroughs, and often deepens my relationship with a plant. But the healing power of herbs does not really come from our intellectual understanding of them. And it does not always have to come from harvesting plants and using them as herbal products.
Sometimes healing can come from just being in the presence of a plant.
An herbalist who spoke and wrote about this aspect of herbalism, and had a huge influence on my decision to to follow the path of herbal medicine, is the late Stephen Harrod Buhner. In his book, Sacred Plant Medicine, Buhner wrote, “In using the plant as spirit medicine it is not enough to just ingest it as medicine. One must sit in relation with the plant and have it agree to help; one must develop a family relationship with the plant until it becomes a sister.”
There are many ways to practice herbalism, and many ways to practice living. May we each find our way and be touched by the beauty that exists all around us.
Buhner, S. H. (1996). Sacred Plant Medicine. Boulder: Roberts Rinehart Publishers.
Croaker, A., King, G. J., Pyne, J. H., Anoopkumar-Dukie, S., & Liu, L. (2016). Sanguinaria canadensis: Traditional Medicine, Phytochemical Composition, Biological Activities and Current Uses. Int J Mol Sci. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5037693/
Ellison, A. M., & Farnsworth, E. J. (2012, Summer). Wonderful Woodland Ants. Northern Woodlands, pp. 34-40. Retrieved from https://harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/060412%20-%20Northern%20Woodlands%20-%20EllisonFarnsworth2012.pdf
Harvard Forest. (n.d.). Ecological Importance. Retrieved from Harvard Forest: https://harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/ants/ecological-importance
Sasidharan, R., & Venkatesan, R. (2019). Seed Elaiosome Mediates Dispersal by Ants and Impacts Germination in Ricinus communis. Front. Ecol. Evol. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2019.00246/full
Wilson, D. (2021). The Seed Keeper. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
My name is Jillian Bar-av and I am a Registered Herbalist and Licensed Nutritionist who works with busy women to help them have the energy to do what they love. I specialize in conditions that affect the reproductive system and urinary tract, such as PCOS and Interstitial Cystitis. I believe that it takes healthy people to create a healthy planet, and I want to make a difference for both.
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