History of Classification of Claytonia virginica (Spring Beauty)

By Marion Blois Lobstein

The history of the classification ofClaytonia virginica began in 1735 when John Clayton sent a collected and pressedClaytonia virginica specimen to Johann Friedrich Gronovius in the Netherlands. Clayton had been inspired by Mark Catesby whom Clayton had met during the period Catesby lived in Williamsburg, Virginia from 1712 to 1719. Catesby encouraged Clayton’s interest in plants and taught him how to press plants to preserve them. After Catesby returned to Europe, Clayton often sent him pressed specimens of Virginia plants, and through Catesby, Clayton began to correspond with Gronovius and send him specimens. Mark Catesby also shared Clayton’s specimens with Gronovius and Linnaeus. (See Clayton’s image specimen at the British Natural History Museum.) Linnaeus named the genus Claytonia in honor of John Clayton and assigned the species epithet (name) virginica for the then-colony of Virginia. In the 1739 (first) and 1762 (second) editions of  Flora Virginica by John Clayton and Gronovius, which used the Linnaean system of classifying species by number of sexual parts (stamens and pistils), Claytonia virginica  is placed under Pentandria Monogynia (five stamens and one pistil).

Meanwhile, more recognizable plant families were being proposed. In 1763, the family Portulacaceae with species from 20 families, including the cactus and ice plant families, was first established by Michel Adanson. In 1789, Antoine de Jussieu pared down the number of genera in Portulacaceae, but included Claytonia and Montia (both genera named by Linnaeus).  In 1820, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque proposed Montiaceae based on the genus Montia. [The genus Montia was named by Linnaeus in honor of Giuseppe Monti (1682-1760), an Italian botanist.) Montia is very similar to Claytonia; there have been many switches of species of Montia to genus Claytonia over the last two hundred years].

The famous American botanist Asa Gray, as a teenager, was inspired to study botany bynoting Claytonia in Amos Eaton’s Manual of Botany for the Northern States (1817 edition) and finding live specimens of Claytonia virginica in spring 1828. Eaton still used the Linnaean system of classification. By the time Asa Gray and John Torrey wrote their Flora of North America in 1838,Claytonia was placed in Portulacaceae. In subsequent editions of Gray’s Manual of Botany(beginning in 1848), the genus was placed in Portulacaceae.

There has been debate for over two hundred years about what genera should be in Portulacaceae and which species in genera Claytonia vs. Montia (the common name of Miner’s lettuce is used for species of both genera.) By the 1980s and into the 1990s, there were more and more questions about whether Claytonia belonged in Portulacaceae or Montiaceae. DNA work starting in the late 1990s and continuing into the early 2000s led to Claytonia and Montia being moved to Montiaceae. The original 1998 Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) and the 2003 AGPII left Portulacaceae and its genera basically unchanged, but by the 2009 APG III, both Claytonia and Montia, along with a number of other genera, were moved to the Montiaceae. The other genera moved to Montiaceae include HectorellaCalandrinia,CistantheLewisia, and Phemeranthus (Talinum). There are approximately 25 recognized species of Claytonia and 12 of Montia worldwide, with only Claytonia virginica andClaytonia caroliniana (Carolina spring beauty) found in Virginia. Montia fontana (annual water miners lettuce) and Montia linearis (narrow leaf miners lettuce), listed on page 1368 of the Flora of Virginia under “Taxa Not Treated in This Manual,” are two Montia species considered “waifs” (nonnative plants that are rare or only short-lived in an area). TheClaytonia virginica classification change is reflected in most current floras and taxonomic work, including in our 2012 Flora of Virginia. 

Some websites of interest:

Overview of spring beauty species and medicinal uses

–“Spring Beauty: The Fairy Spud,” an overview of spring beauty species, common names, edible and medicinal uses

–“This Spud’s for You”(another common name for spring beauty is “fairy spud”):

–Interestingly, two USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) sites differ on classification of Claytonia virginica, with the USDA’s Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) recognizing Montiaceae and placing Claytonia and Montia in that family, while the USDA Plant Database still lists both genera in Portulacaceae. The two websites are www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/html/family.pl?733 andhttp://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=clvi3

John Clayton Herbarium at Natural History Museum in London, England

Backgound on Asa Gray

–“Disintegrating Portulacaceae: a new familial classification of the suborder Portulacineae (Caryophyllales) based on molecular and Morphological data

[Botanical illustration of Claytonia virginica, in Dictionnaire des sciences naturelle, by Pierre Jean Francois Turpin (1816).]

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