By Marion Blois Lobstein
Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is one of the loveliest and most easily recognizable of our early spring wildflowers. Its genus name Claytoniawas assigned by Linnaeus to honor John Clayton, one of Virginia’s earliest and best known naturalists, and virginica to honor the site of specimen collection. John Clayton was the author of the Flora Virginica, a manual or “flora” of the plants of colonial Virginia. This work was last updated in 1762 and after 250 years Virginia has a modern “flora,” the Flora of Virginia published in December 2012 (visit www.floraofvirginia.org to find out more about the Flora of Virginia and how to order your copy).
Spring beauty in the past has been placed in Portulacaceae (the portulaca or purslane family) but now is place in Montiaceae (the Miner’s lettuce family) based on DNA evidence of its relationship with other similar plants. Its habitat is moist woods, open meadows, and even lawns. The distribution of this species is from Georgia to Nova Scotia and west into Texas. Its blooming period in our area runs from late February to early May. Spring beauty often competes with skunk cabbage, hepatica, and harbinger‑of‑spring as one of the earliest spring wildflowers.
A typical mature spring beauty plant is 6 to 10 inches tall. When the two slender leaves of spring beauty first appear in early spring, they resemble at first glance those of a grass. The stem is a slender, delicate structure that droops with the weight of the developing fruit. The underground storage stem is a small corm with many fibrous roots. Spring beauty is a true spring ephemeral with the above ground structures dying (senescencing) to the ground level by late spring when the leaf canopy begins to fill in above the forest floor. During the period the plants are photosynthesizing, underground corms store energy for the next spring’s development of above ground structures. The corm sends up only one leaf if no flowers are to be formed for a growing season. Two leaves form on mature plants capable of forming flowers. The flower buds are formed in the fall under fallen leaves and emerge in the spring with the leaves.
The inflorescence is a racemose cyme bearing 5 to 25 flowers, approximately 1/2 to 3/4 inches across. The flowers close at night and on overcast days, which protects pollen in the flowers. There are two green sepals forming the calyx. The five white, white with pink stripes, or pink petals are slightly joined at their bases to form a saucer-shaped corolla. The pink stripes which serve as nectar lines for pollinators remind one of peppermint candy striping. There are five stamens with pink anthers and pink filaments. The filaments reflect ultraviolet radiation which insect pollinators can see. The pistil has a superior ovary and a three‑cleft style. The first day the flower opens, its stamens are functional and release pollen. The next day—and up to seven more days—the pistil is receptive to pollen. During this period the stamens bend the anthers back against the petals. The ultraviolet reflecting filaments that are also bent back may act as nectar lines to guide the insect pollinators down to the nectary glands at the base of each petal. The nectar production of spring beauty is very generous. At least 23 different species of native bees, bumblebees, honeybees, and syrphid flies have been observed visiting spring beauty flowers. Some other spring wildflowers such as rue anemone and hepatica that are not generous nectar producers may attract pollinators by mimicking the shape and size of spring beauty.
The fruit of spring beauty is a triangular shaped capsule containing up to 25‑30 or more shiny black seeds with small appendages known as elaiosomes. The fruit matures about ten days following pollination and fertilization. The seeds are forcibly ejected from the capsule at maturity and may be further dispersed by ants attracted to the elaiosomes (fat bodies on outside of seeds).
The spring beauty corm is quite tasty and has been a food source in Indian cultures and is still eaten by wild food enthusiasts. The corms, which contain vitamins A and C, can be eaten raw or cooked like small potatoes. Squirrels and other forest wildlife will eat the corms. The leaves and flowers are also edible. Past medicinal uses have included using powdered corms to treat convulsions and as a contraception. Other species of spring beauty have been used by various Indian tribes to make poultices to treat eye problems and as an infusion to treat sore throats, dandruff, and urinary tract problems.
Even through spring beauty may be one of our commonest spring wildflowers, it still brings us much joy and beauty each spring on walks through the woods or even in our own lawns. Spring beauties can be found across our area. Enjoy the spring beauties mixed in with Virginia Bluebells at the walk along Bull Run at the Manassas National Battlefield Park (MNBP) Stone Bridge and elsewhere in MNBP.
[Marion Blois Lobstein is Botany Chair of the Prince William Wildflower Society and Professor Emeritus (Biology), NVCC Manassas. This article is adapted from articles previously published in Wild News. Photos courtesy of Marion Blois Lobstein].