This perennial wildflower is not the earliest spring ephemeral, but some people think of it as the definitive harbinger of spring. A native of the eastern US and Midwest, Virginia spring beauty lights up woodlands, yards, and parks in April and May with drifts of pinkish-white, star-shaped flowers and narrow green leaves. The clusters of flowers grow up to 12” tall on slender stems that later droop under the weight of the seed capsules. The plant spreads easily to form loose colonies in dappled sunlight and rich, moist, humusy conditions. It adapts to a variety of soils and to degraded habitats, allowing it to survive as a relatively common ephemeral. The plant dies away mid-summer except for the edible underground tuber (another common name is fairy spud). It spreads in several ways: by expelling its seeds; by the fibrous roots of the tuber; and by myrmecochory, or ant dispersal. Ants are attracted to fleshy structures called elaiosomes on the seeds. They drag the seeds to their nest where their young consume the elaiosomes, leaving the seeds behind for germination.
The flowers are typically white with pink stripes, but they can vary from white to pink to almost red. This variation is due to natural selection, and the dainty flowers are a welcome sight for over 23 species of early-season bees and flies. According to horticulture educator Ken Johnson, dark pink flowers are more attractive to bees, so the bees visit and pollinate more often, thus producing more seeds. In contrast, white flowers are pollinated less and produce fewer seeds. However, slugs are less likely to feed on white or pale flowers. Yet another strategy of Virginia spring beauty involves standing out from the crowd. Naturalists have noticed that when other varieties of white flowers are in one location, the petals of Virginia spring beauty tend to be pinker so that more pollinators will choose their nectar treats. The flowers close at night and on cloudy days, which may protect the pollen.
The genus name is in honor of John Clayton, one of Virginia’s best-known naturalists. The plant is very similar to Claytonia carolina, which has broader leaves. When Virginia spring beauty’s blade-like, slightly fleshy leaves first appear, they resemble blades of grass. If two leaves are present, the plant is mature enough to produce flowers. If only one leaf appears, you’ll probably have to wait until the following spring to see flowers. Refrain from mowing the foliage during spring so that the plants can continue to gather energy for next year’s growth. When planting the corms, place them 3" apart and deep.
Native habitats include rich woods, thickets, savannas, thinly wooded bluffs, city parks, old cemeteries and lawns, and occasionally in prairies. Grow in woodlands, naturalized areas, and garden beds along with crocuses and other spring bulbs.
Grows 4-12” tall.
Performs best in part shade; tolerates full sun.
Prefers rich, moist soils with high humus content. Tolerates a variety of soils.
Blooms are in a raceme of 5 or more flowers that grows several inches long at the top of the plant. Each flower is ½” across with 5 petals that form a saucer-shaped corolla and 5 pink-tipped stamens; two sepals are underneath. They are followed by triangular-shaped capsules containing 25-30 shiny, black seeds that are expelled up to 4’ away.
Linear-shaped, slightly recurved leaves with smooth margins occur at base and midway up the reddish-green, succulent stem. Leaves are up to 6” long and ¼” wide with a single central vein.
The larvae of spring beauty miner bee (Andrena erigenidae) feed exclusively on the pollen and nectar of Virginia spring beauty. Other bees visiting for nectar and sometimes pollen include honey, bumble, little carpenter, mason, cuckoo, Halictid, and Andrenid. Syrphid flies, giant bee fly, flesh flies, and Calliphorid flies also visit. Chipmunks, squirrels, and mice eat the corms. Deer browse the leaves.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used some species of spring beauty to treat eye problems, sore throats, dandruff, and urinary tract issues. This species was used to treat convulsions and as a contraceptive.
Native Americans and colonists ate the tubers, which are high in vitamins A and C. Foragers still enjoy them today.
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