Claytonia virginica (clay-TOE-nee-uh);
Montiaceae (mon-tee-AY-see-ee), the Miner’s Lettuce Family

A lot is expected of anybody named “Spring Beauty”, but Claytonia  really delivers.  Not only is she cute with those pink and white candy-striped petals and her matching pink anthers, she’s friendly too!  If you bite into some of our St. Louis spring ephemerals, like Bloodroot, they’ll bite you back.  But not Claytonia.  There’s not a mean sclerenchyma cell in her entire body.  She’s a Spring Beauty if there’s ever been one.

If you’re unfamiliar with our Spring Beauty, here’s a short VIDEO (4:04) that introduces her well.

Unlike Bloodroot and Toothwort from last week’s “Flower-Spotter” challenge, the Spring Beauty’s flower is vital to the plant’s identification.  The leaves can’t do it alone – at least not easily.  They look too much like grass and disappear into their surroundings.

The flower bud is formed in autumn under the fallen leaves.  Plants with only 1 leaf won’t produce flowers.  You need a 2-leaf plant to get flowers. (This is also true with some other plants, such as Mayapple.)

The fragrant, nectar-rich little flowers are quite fun to look at.  At night or when the sky gets too cloudy, they close-up and nod their heads.  But they rise and open-up again when the day becomes warm and bright. 

The flower has a technique to keep from pollinating itself.  There’s a “male phase” and a “female phase”.  On the first day of opening, the anthers release their pollen to visiting insects.  Then for the rest of the week, the stamens bend back against the petals, keeping the anthers out of the way.  This allows the stigmas to open-up for business and receive pollen from others. 

Flower Features of Spring Beauty


The inflorescence is a floppy terminal raceme.


Calyx: The calyx has only 2 green sepals.
Corolla: The corolla has 5 petals.  The petals have pink veins that guide the pollinator to the center of the flower.  The background color is generally white, but pink petals are not too hard to find.


Stamens: There are 5 stamens.  This is the whorl that is most arresting.  How in the world did evolution arrange for 5 white filaments to line up perfectly with five white petals, and then put on those bright pink anthers to match the pink striping of the petals?  It seems so unreal.  It’s hard to stop staring at it.


Ovary: superior-positioned; ovary has 6 ovules with basal placentation
Carpels: 3 fused carpels
Stigma: The single style is 3-cleft with 3 stigmas. 
Fruit: The fruit is an ovoid or triangular capsule with a lid.  In 10 days or so the capsule will dehisce and forcibly eject its 1-6 shiny black seeds.  To better their dispersal chances, each seed has a bit of elaiosome stuck to it.  “Elaiosome” is an oil-rich payment the plant uses for hiring an ant to haul it away.

It seems common knowledge that the tubers can be prepared and eaten like potatoes.  In fact one of Spring Beauty’s common names is “Fairy Spud”.  Some say that they’re even sweeter than a potato – more like a chestnut.  But who goes around digging-up wildflowers?  Besides, they’re so tiny you’d have to tear up half a nature preserve just to get enough for lunch. 

There’s something funny going on with Spring Beauty’s chromosomes.  Most creatures have a fixed number of chromosomes.  For example, spinach has 12, a cucumber 14, a carrot 18, a tomato 24, oats and wheat both have 42, we have 46, a strawberry 56, sugarcane 80, and a horsetail 216.  But the polyploid Spring Beauty has an inconsistent number of chromosomes.  They vary from plant to plant, ranging from 12 to 191.  Here in St. Louis, the 2N numbers range from 22 to 37, with 24 and 30 being by far the most common.  Morphologically, the plants with lower polyploid numbers tend to have narrower leaves while those with higher polyploid numbers tend to have wider leaves.

So I vote for Claytonia virginiana.  She smells nice, she’s kind to the pollinators and to the ants, she’s got a matching wardrobe, she can whip up some potatoes for your next meal, and she can score really high on the chromosome test.  Without a doubt, she’s the best spring ephemeral anybody could ever hope for!

– Michael Laschober

Flower-Spotter Week 02 (March 27-April 2)

Where to find Spring Beauty (please protect the plants in our natural areas):

Please click to see a list of all our St. Louis Montiaceae  plants.