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Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot, Pucoon or Indian paint)

Dr Henry Oakeley

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Free to use with attribution CC BYCredit: Dr Henry Oakeley
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This is the double form of the spring flowering member of the Papaveraceae (poppy family) from the woodlands of eastern North America. Daniel Austin (2004) reported that it was initially called Chelidonium majus canadense acaulon as the leaves and colourful sap were reminiscent of Chelidonium majus, the European greater celandine. Native Americans – Chicksaw, Creek, Seminole, Cherokee and Timacua – used the orange sap as a dye for painting heads and garments. Creek and Yuchi women (red spot on each cheek for Yuchi) painted their faces red if they wished to grant sexual favours. Ponca men put it on their hands and shook hands with a woman to get her to marry them in five to six days. It is cytotoxic when applied to the skin, causing burning and scarring, so has been used for treating warts, and makes the legends of Native American use as a cosmetic unlikely. Robert Bentley at Kings College Hospital reported in 1861 how it had been applied topically to fungating breast cancers, but was useless. It is still used topically by a few herbalists with disastrous results ranging from local scarring to total destruction of the nose. The sap contains toxic benzylisoquinoline alkaloids – chiefly sanguinarine – which intercalates DNA and blocks the sodium pump in cell membranes, causing mutations, foetal abnormalities, cell death and cancers. Sanguinarine was used as an additive to toothpaste for many years and caused leucoplakia, a precancerous lesion of the inside of the mouth. Millspaugh (1974) reports the effects of ingestion include nausea, vomiting, burning of mucous membranes on contact, faintness, vertigo, coma, bradycardia, terrible thirst, abdominal pain, difficulty in breathing, dilatation of the pupils, and death from ‘cardiac paralysis’.

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Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot, Pucoon or Indian paint). Credit: Dr Henry Oakeley. CC BY


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