Spring Beauties

One of the simple joys of early spring is walking in the greening woods, absorbing the rising energy, and seeing wildflowers emerging along woodland trails.  Spring and fall bring a special poignancy–reminding us that everything is transient and turning our awareness from the noise, distraction and foibles of human existence to something that is resonant and serves, as the late microbiologist and environmental philosopher Rene Dubos once commented, “as a sounding board for the Cosmos.”

Spring Beauties blooming along the Cascade Falls trail at Patapsco Valley State Park, April 18, 2019 (photo by author)

Spring beauties–Claytonia virginica--are an early bloomer in the Northeast, and in Maryland, where I live, reach their glory between mid-April and mid-May, depending on the vagaries of the weather. They are ephemeral, and once at peak will dry up and fade away until the following spring. The flowers are delicate, ranging in color from white to pastel pink to nearly purple, with their color highlighted by the pink to purple veins that radiate along the petals. Although various parts of the plant are edible, they are increasingly under threat, and should not be disturbed. I hike often in the Maryland woods, but the only expansive stands I know are in Patapsco Valley State Park.  The plant ranges from as far north as Nova Scotia and Minnesota south to Georgia and Louisiana and west to Texas.

When they are at their diffident glory, the effect is mesmerizing. I am always surprised that fellow hikers walk by without stopping and standing quietly to absorb the impressionistic carpet sweeping along the woods and up hills into the trees.  Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder—but it is hard to imagine that anyone who takes time to look carefully at a stand of blooming Claytonia could fail to appreciate their delicate esthetic.

Spring beauties have a complex relationship with their primary pollinator, the andrenid bee, Andrena erigeniae, sometimes called the “Spring Beauty Bee,” a small, short-tongued bee that forages almost entirely on Claytonia. According to Carol Gracie’s “Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History,” the diminutive bee relies on Spring Beauty for both nectar and pollen, the latter being the sole food source for the bee’s annual larvae brood.

Spring beauty bee (Andrena erigeniae) on a spring beauty (photo by Judy Gallagher via Wikimedia Commons)

The little bee makes three to five trips back and forth to the flowers to gather enough pollen, which it shapes into a ball. It lays a single egg inside the pollen ball, which is tucked away in a side chamber off the main underground nest.

Spring beauty flowers unfold around 52 degrees Fahrenheit—which corresponds to the temperature at which some pollinating flies are able to take wing–although the Spring beauty bee does not fly until the temperature reaches around 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

The characteristics of spring beauty that draw us to them reflect an evolutionary adaptation, in that the contrasting pattern of the petals and filaments attract pollinators, while the pink veins and yellow spots at the petals’ base guide insects down into the nectar source, according to Gracie.

Once pollination has occurred and seeds have formed, the flower has evolved to put pressure on the seed capsules so that they burst explosively, dispersing seeds up to two feet from the plant. While spring beauties bloom transiently, they take up to four years to reach reproductive maturity–another reason to observe their beauty but leave them untouched.

Spring beauties blooming along the Cascade Falls trail at Patapsco Valley State Park April 2019 (photo by author)

Claytonia were first described in detail by John Clayton, an early Virginia naturalist, who came to colonial Virginia from England, and wrote the Flora Virginica, last updated in 1762, according to the Virginia Native Plant Society.

Spring beauties are a botanical curiosity in that wild stands of the flowers show great color variability within the same stand. Generally, evolutionary pressures should result in the more reproductively successful color becoming dominant, notes Gracie.  This oddity was explored by Indiana University graduate student Frank Frey, who wrote in the introduction to a paper he published in 2007 in the journal Evolution that “maintenance of floral-color variation within natural populations is enigmatic because directional selection through pollinator preferences combined with genetic drift should lead to the rapid loss of such variation.”

What Frey found is that two distinct pressures—attractiveness to hungry slugs and infection by a pathogenic fungus have exerted opposing pressures. Slugs, it turns out, prefer the leaves of pink flowered beauties—but white-flowered beauties are more susceptible to the fungus. Frey learned that this is a consequence of the interplay of various biochemicals that occur in different proportions in the leaves of spring beauties with white versus pink flowers.

In the past, spring beauty was used medicinally by herbalists and native Americans as a contraceptive, for treating convulsions, sore throats, dandruff, and urinary tract problems, and as a poultice for eye infections, according to the Virginia Native Plant society.

But we need only enjoy their simple beauty as they turn the spring woodland understory into a gentle pointillist painting.

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