Common Name: Spring Beauty, Groundnut, Fairy spuds – Aptly named as the epitome of the beauty of spring after the frigid silence of winter; it instantiates renewal.
Scientific Name: Claytonia virginica – The generic name was assigned by Carolinus Linnaeus to honor John Clayton, the preeminent tobacco planter cum botanist in colonial Virginia; the toponym where it was first discovered supplies the species name.
Potpourri: As a rooster crows to announce the dawn, the passing of the vernal equinox has its own herald, the delicate clusters of white petals limned with pink; there is no better name than spring beauty to capture its annual recrudescence. Although each flower is relatively small, there are multiple blossoms on each individual plant and multiple plants that grow in miniature copses that carpet moist upland woods; a Garden of Eden suggesting divine provenance. As a spring ephemeral, it follows the rules of phenology, blooming before the leafy canopy of summer growth steals the sun hundreds of feet above. It is one of many understory flowering plants that must grow and attract pollinators for fertilization to engender the essential seed all in the short weeks between the spring warming that signals their emergence and the summer shadows that mandate their demise. They are not alone, transient wildflowers are necessarily relegated to the fleeting sunlit hiatus of the early spring; hepatica, coltsfoot, bloodroot, dandelion, columbine and trout lily are among their more notable cohorts that beguile the wanderer. That the spring beauty is abundant among them attests to its successful adaptations against nature’s unforgiving ways.
The alternate name Groundnut is apropos; it refers to the amyloid corm from which the plant arises and where the photosynthetic product is stored. A corm is similar to a tuber, the latter familiar as the potato and the yam (the sweet potato, which is not the same as the yam, is a root and not a tuber). The distinction between corms and tubers is confusing as both are hypogeal growths that are used by their respective plant as nutrient repositories. Tubers are multiple swollen portions of stolons, the side branches of the underground stem; there are multiple tubers for a single plant that propagate vegetatively from the ‘eyes.’ A corm is the vertical portion of the underground stem that is thickened and fleshy; there is one corm per plant and in most cases the corm persists from year to year so that spring beauty is a perennial and not an annual plant. A corm is also similar to the bulb associated with tulips and onions; to add to the confusion corms are sometimes called solid bulbs or bulbo-tubers.
The corm provides the nutrient storage and vegetative growth that sustains and multiplies spring beauty even during stressful climate cycles. Its survival is further enhanced by copious seed production; each of the 10 to 15 blossoms on each spring beauty plant produces three seeds – that would be about 40 seeds per plant. And, like many other spring ephemerals, it has evolved according to its adaptive habitat to enter into a mutualistic relationship with ants. It has been estimated that there are ten thousand trillion (1016) ants in the world, a ubiquity that suggests a high level of nutritional adaptation. The seeds produce protruding appendages called elaiosomes (from the Greek words for ‘oil’ and ‘body’) that have lipids and proteins and are sought out by ants for larval nutrition, a mutualistic relationship with the abstruse name myrmecochory. The dispersal of the seeds to ant mound burial sites for germination serves the needs of the spring beauty and the nutrients sustain their willing porters. Lots of ants beget lots of flowers.
Spring beauty corms are edible, and, due to their diminutive size of ½ to 2 inches in diameter, they are called ‘fairy spuds,’ an epithet which no doubt contributes to the erroneous notion that they are tubers. Several Native American tribes gathered and ate them, a testimonial to the degree to which gathering provided a backup to the exigencies of the hunt – periodic failure did not result in famine. A reasonably sized portion can be excavated in a relatively short time with a pointed stick as the plants grow in clusters. Fairy spuds are among the quarry of more modern foragers following in the footsteps of Euell Gibbons of Eating the Wild Asparagus fame who likened them in flavor to boiled chestnuts. Gathering spring beauty corms for food, however, is not sustainable; spring beauty is currently listed by the USDA as endangered in Massachusetts. Even Gibbons offered the cautionary and philosophical note “Let’s not our greediness for this food destroy or diminish this attractive plant. The tubers (sic) are good food for the body, but, after a long winter, the pale-rose flowers in early spring are food for the soul ‘Man does not live by bread alone’.”
The assignment of the generic name Claytonia to the spring beauty by Linnaeus places both the wildflower and the botanist John Clayton at the fons et origio of taxonomy. As the clerk of Gloucester County from 1720 until his death in 1773, Clayton had time to pursue his passion for collecting and describing the flora of the Virginia colony. In keeping with the practices of the nascent emergence of the life sciences, he sent dried plant specimens with attendant descriptions to Frederick Gronovius, a noted botanist in Leiden, Netherlands, who shared them with Linnaeus. The complexity of global biological diversity that resulted from the discovery of the Americas overwhelmed the Greek system of classification established by Theophrastus of Eresus in the seminal ten-volume Historia Plantarum written in the third century BCE. Linnaeus recognized that the common practice of naming the new American plants with a string of descriptive nouns and adjectives in Latin was unwieldy and devised the current binomial system of genus and species in the early 1730’s. Using the new taxonomy, Clayton systematically collected plants in Virginia and sent them to Gronovius, who published the first modern botanical treatise, Flora Virginica, in 1739 (apparently without knowledge or consent of Clayton). In naming the spring beauty’s genus Claytonia in 1737, Linnaeus provided at least a modicum of recognition to the life work of Clayton. The Linnaean taxonomic system is a sexual system, dividing flowering plants into 23 classes according to the number and configuration of the male reproductive stamens. It worked for over two hundred years. It has been overtaken in turn by DNA, the ultimate roadmap of evolution.
Spring beauty was a member of the Purslane or Portulacaceae Family which once had about 20 genera and 600 species; it now has one genus and about 100 species. Claytonia was moved to a new family (Montiaceae) consistent with its genetic composition. An informal international association of botanists called the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) emerged in the 1990’s due to the need to seek consensus on the new taxonomy of flowering plants that was mandated by phylogenics, the study of evolutionary history. The fundamental tenet of the APG is that all members of a group or clade must be monophyletic – i.e. have a common ancestor. That this is in statu nascendi goes without saying, as the fourth revision to the original 1998 taxonomy was published in 2016 as APG IV. Spring beauty is a study in genetic diversity in its own right and is a singular example of just how complicated life really is (even if you are not a teenager). A 1967 study entitled Cytogeography of Claytonia virginica and its Allies evaluated the chromosomal diversity of 1,000 plants collected throughout eastern North America. The number of chromosomes is normally constant for a single species and is generally referred to as n (23 for H. sapiens); they form a diploid (2n) in sexual union to impart genetic diversity. Spring beauty apparently evolved from n=6 to n=7 and even 8 with further variation beyond diploid to tetraploid (4n) and polyploid for a maximum of about 191 chromosomes; there are about 50 different variants of the same species. The only apparent physical difference is that the leaves are slightly wider for the larger chromosome variants. What hath God wrought?