Halpatioke Park in Stuart was where John and George got lost yesterday, but the advantage of getting lost is extended exploration, and in the depth of our despair took comfort in Marshallia tenuifolia (Barbara’s Buttons) putting on a fancy show. We traipsed also through a Hypericum marsh full of the odd annual grass Steinchisma laxa which seems to relocate from year to year as the wind blows. But enough of this pointless chatter: we are here for Carolina Redroot (Lachnanthese caroliana).
Carolina Redroot looks vegetatively like an Iris, and like one of those, it prefers wet places and shallow water. What’s woolly on the outside and yellow on the inside? The Cowardly Lion? No, Lachnanthes blossoms. In class we talk about butterfly-pollinated flowers resembling upside-down witch hats, which occur more often in Dicots than in Monocots, such as today’s pretty Monocot. Butterflies do visit, but not just butterflies. Yesterday the dominant floral visitors were big scary-looking bees (or bee posers).
The term redroot is apt, as the subterranean underpinnings are bloody. The red bleeds readily into oils and ethanol, meaning that people have used the stuff easily. William Bartram and other 18th Century observers encountered Native Americans using an oil extract as tinted hair oil. (I’ve had students who look like they do too.) The red serves also as fabric dye, which I could have discovered personally, as my right thumbnail remains red long after handling the roots. Easily extracted plant products have a way of winding up in homeopathy, which is true of our plant.
Why would a plant pack its roots with red stuff? I do not know how important the actual coloration is. It could be a sort of warning coloration—“hey, pigs don’t munch these poison roots.” The plants are reputedly tough on livestock, including a much-repeated, but unsubstantiated, report that the roots poison white pigs but not black ones. It turns their bones red! There could actually be something to it, because there are hints of the toxins causing photosensitivity, so maybe black pigs have natural sunscreen. Or then again this is all coming from some iffy sources and may be hogwash. (I’d love to know the dietary attitude of feral piggies to Redroot roots.)
What is more fascinating about the red material, which seems to be a chemical blend, is that the other big concentration is in the young fruit. What does the young fruit have in common with the root? Both are starchy regions the plant may defend from hungry varmints. Cut across an immature capsule and it glows red like rubies. Really, try it. (You will get red fingers.) The red part is not the seeds, but rather a massive swollen exaggerated placenta, which is the organ to which seeds are attached. (Technically, a portion of the seed attachment itself may contribute to the red mass.) Mammal placentas are big and red, but why would a plant have such a thing? I think the placenta is a big red poison pill. The main compound reported from it is a toxin called lachnanthocarpone. As the fruit ripens the redness fades. The mature fruits are ugly dry capsules crowned with persistent sepal tips.
Evidence that dispersal is mostly by flotation, at least in some regions, is that in northern portions of the range Redroot spreads through physically interconnected water systems yet is absent from apparently suitable habitats without flotation access.
Speaking of the distribution, the range is bizarre, from Cuba to Nova Scotia. Despite what I just said about floating, a spotty linear north-south range implicates migrating waterfowl as translatitudinal movers and shakers.
Redroot is not prominent garden-wise, but it is cultivated occasionally, including in Europe, with an eye to its wetland proclivities. Commercial availability is low, although the Florida Wildflower Growers Cooperative offers the seeds. CLICK