Thursday, March 10, 2016

Spring Beauties

A small patch of Spring Beauties from my house.
A close-up from my yard.

     The appropriately named Virginia Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) are indeed beautiful, if small, spring ephemerals: growing leaves, blooming, and producing seeds before the trees fully leaf out and then disappearing until the next spring. Their scientific name was assigned by Linnaeus himself in honor of John Clayton, one of Virginia's earliest naturalists. They can be quite abundant, blanketing open woodlands so thickly they sometimes look like snow. Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) is another species that grows in the mountains West of our region. 

A carpet of Spring Beauties.

     The plants send up only one grass-like leaf during years they do not flower, two or more otherwise. The flowers themselves close up and point downwards to protect their nectar on overcast days and at night.

Spring Beauties closed up, "sleeping", on a rainy day.

     More species of insects have been documented visiting Spring Beauties than any other spring ephemeral studied so far. The flowers show much variation and have nectar guides that appeal to many pollinators. Although each individual flower only lasts about a week (producing pollen solely the first day and nectar the remainder of the time so as to help prevent self-pollination), as a species they can bloom for quite a long time, from February through May. This allows more opportunities for different insects to visit as well as rewarding those who do. This includes a native solitary mining bee, Andrena erigeniae, the Spring Beauty Bee, which is olgolectic, meaning it requires the pollen from this flower or it can't reproduce. Though it can visit other flowers for nectar, its young need the pollen from this flower to grow. So close is this association that the flowers open only when temperatures and conditions are high enough for the bee (and other early pollinators) to be flying.
     Once pollinated, the seeds "explode" as far as two feet before being dispersed by ants. They grow special attachments on their seed coats (called elaisomes) that are attractive to many species of ants in a process known as "myrmecochory" (see that Blog article for details).

Claytonia show wide variation in petal size, shape, and color. The nectar guides are plainly visible on this individual.

     Spring Beauties are sometimes called "Fairy Spuds." This is due to the small, marble-sized tuber (corm) that forms their roots. These are quite tasty, I must admit, and were a favorite food of many indigenous tribes (and modern foragers, raw or cooked) wherever they grew, as were the leaves. Eating the root of course kills the plant however, so it is best to leave them to the numerous insects that need them instead.
     The Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) used a decoction and infusion of the roots to treat children with convulsions. They believed that eating the raw plants was a contraception. 

A "Fairy Spud" - the edible corm or root of a Spring Beauty.

     Occasionally you find a leaf that has little dimples and bumps all over it. That is a form of fungus, Spring Beauty Rust (Puccinia mariae-wilsoniae) that is specific to the 2 kinds of spring beauties that grow in the region, as well as a couple of other plants in the same family, Portulacaceae. 

Spring Beauty Rust

     Here's a short video from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel that features them:



  1. This brings back childhood memories! Spring beauties grew in huge patches in the woods where I grew up in western New York, and were among the first spring wildflowers to bloom. I've always loved these and pretty much all the spring ephemerals. I did sample the tubers but they were too small to be worth the effort!

  2. Snow Caps, Spring Beauties, and Dog Tooth violets (a.k.a. trout lilies and the Eastern Shore) are out carpeting the forest floor at Tuckahoe State Park.

  3. These are among my favorite spring wild flowers, but I intend to write about many more, and have in the past. I also just reposted about myrmecochory. Thanks.