It is easy to imagine why the common name for this flower is eastern spring beauty; it is one of the first wildflowers to bloom in its eastern North American range, just as the western spring beauty (Claytonia lanceolata) is among the first bloomers here in the west of this continent.
Claytonia virginica is an ephemeral herbaceous perennial found growing in dense clumps in moist meadows and woodlands. In the spring, eastern spring beauty corms send up multiple stalks–the greater the number of stalks, the larger the corm–each bearing several flower clusters. The pale pink flowers measure 8mm across and have 5 petals, 2 green sepals, 5 stamens with pink anthers, and a pistil with a tripartite style. Until recently, Claytonia virginica was most often placed in the purslane family, the Portulacaceae. DNA studies have recently confirmed that Claytonia is better separated with other close relatives into the Montiaceae.
Eastern spring beauty is a myrmecochore: its seeds are dispersed by ants through a mutualistic relationship. Claytonia virginica seeds have a protein and lipid-rich structure attached to them, produced specifically for the ants that will collect the seeds and bring them to their nests. This nutritious structure, termed an elaiosome, is fed to the ant larvae. Once the larvae have finished their dinners, the seeds are placed into the ant’s refuse area, which provides a rich and protected growing environment for Claytonia virginica seedlings. Myrmecochory is increasingly regarded by ecologists as an important ecosystem driver, but this has not always been the case. As late as 1975, an overview of ant-plant mutualism posited that ants played little role in seed distribution, but by 1981 a study examining myrmecochory in West Virginian forests (part of Claytonia virginica‘s range) found that about 30% of herbaceous flora had seeds distributed by ants (see Beattie and Culver in Ecology). It’s worth pointing out that while eastern spring beauty’s seeds are distributed by ants, its flowers are pollinated by other insects. Andrena erigeniae, a small bee native to eastern North America, pollinates only Claytonia virginica and the closely-related Claytonia caroliniana.
Another common name for Claytonia virginica is the ‘fairy spud’, owing to the corm that tastes like a small potato when cooked. Early settlers frequently ate this small ‘spud’, and also ate the young leaves as a salad green. The spring beauties — including Claytonia virginica, Claytonia caroliniana, and Claytonia lanceolata — were important foods for the indigenous peoples of North America, and the western Claytonia lanceolata has been particularly well–studied. In the book, Biodiversity and Native America, a quote by the late Lil’wat elder Baptiste Ritchie describes Claytonia lanceolata corms that were as large as a fist in areas that were being intentionally burned by the residents of Mount Currie, near Whistler, BC. These corms were harvested in large quantities and stored for winter use. It’s not clear whether traditional management techniques were also used to tend Claytonia virginica patches.
See also a previous Botany Photo of the Day entry about a related species, Claytonia perfoliata.