By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia
"Bloodroot is rich in alkaloids which have antibiotic properties," said Jim Affolter, a horticulturist who is leading the studies in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"Companies in Europe are starting to use it in animal feed to improve appetite and digestion. It’s a potentially enormous market," Affolter said.
"Bloodroot isn't terribly hard to grow, but it hasn't been produced on a commercial scale. It's not rare, but it's not common, either," he said. "Natural populations could easily be decimated if industry production sent people out to scour the forests the way the ginseng market has done."
Bloodroot's most-studied alkaloid is called sanguinarine (sang- GWEN-uh-reen), which has proven antimicrobial properties, said UGA horticulture researcher Selima Campbell.
Sanguinarine is used as a feed additive for livestock in Europe, in the same way antibiotics have been used as growth promoters for U.S. livestock. In 1998, the European Union banned the use of all antibiotics used in human medicine for livestock production.
A representative of German-based Phytobiotics, an animal feedstock additive company, visited the UGA Athens campus recently to meet with scientists on bloodroot's potential as a commercial crop. One of their products, Sangrovit, contains sanguinarine.
The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization say banning human-use antibiotics from livestock feed will help protect people from new, drug-resistant bacteria, which the CDC calls one of the world's most pressing public health problems.
To grow bloodroot for its sanguinarine, UGA researchers are focusing on three unknowns, Campbell said.
The first is to find where exactly in the plant and when during its growth cycle sanguinarine concentrations are highest. This will determine what part of the plant is harvested and when.
"Preliminary results show that the sanguinarine is allocated to the rhizome," Campbell said. "(That) is the source of bloodroot's name. When the 'root' (rhizome) of bloodroot is cut, it 'bleeds' a bright red substance containing a number of different, potent alkaloids."
A second unknown is how bloodroot responds to differing sunlight levels. Bloodroot flowers in woodland areas in early spring, before the trees have leafed out. It then lives out the rest of it’s cycle in the shade.
Researchers want to know if seasonal changes in photosynthesis and light levels affect the sanguinarine concentrations. This could tell them the best ways to grow it to get the most sanguinarine.
The final area of study is its propagation.
"Right now, bloodroot is wild-gathered," Campbell said. "It's a slow-growing plant, so gathering it by the ton would definitely stress natural populations. It's crucial to develop a way to propagate the plants."
By the time they're through, the UGA scientists hope to know the best growing conditions for bloodroot. "This would allow growers to exert quality control over the product, conserve wild plants and be a new source of economic development," Campbell said.
While bloodroot's use in oral hygiene products and animal feedstock is recent, its medicinal history is centuries old, Affolter said.
"Bloodroot was used for centuries by native Americans to dye their clothing and paint their faces," he said. "They also used it to treat skin cancers and fungal growths."
Southerners have harvested bloodroot from the wild since post- Colonial times. "They used it as an emetic, an expectorant for bronchitis and a gargle for sore throats," Affolter said.
(Cat Holmes is a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)