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Environmental Studies

Claytonia virginica (Eastern Spring Beauty) Portulacaceae


Claytonia virginica is a delicate wildflower native to every county in Illinois.  Commonly known as “Eastern Spring beauty,” this attractive wildflower certainly lives up to its name.  To sight Claytonia virginica’s distinctive pink stripes in open woodlands signifies that spring has arrived and the woodlands are filled with diverse wildflowers.


Physical Characteristics

Leaf | Stalk: Claytonia vriginica grows perennially through a system of underground roots.  One tactic for identifying Spring beauty in nature would involve digging up the roots.  However, for those interested in a less aggressive approach simply looking at the plant’s leaves and stalk suffices as a good place to start.  Spring beauty rises to about 3-6”tall, consisting of a stem with opposite cauline leaves and some basal leaves.  The stem is light green to slightly reddish and glabrous (smooth).  Both genre of leaves are linear or linear-lanceolate, glabrous, smooth along the margins and slightly fleshy.  The leaves are about 2-5” long with variable widths.  The stem terminates in a raceme of flowers.

Flower | Seeds: A Spring Beauty flower in full-bloom can be distinguished by its five pink-striped petals, two green sepals, five stamens wearing pink anthers and one pistil with a tripartite style.  To fully experience the organs, an observer of the flower would be wise to arrive in the afternoon on a warm, sunny day.  During cloudy weather or at night, the flowers close their petals and nod downward to conserve energy.  Nonetheless, Spring beauty opens back up in the sun and gives off a pleasant floral scent to attract pollinators.  The distinctive pink veins located on every 8mm petal also act as nectar guides for pollinators.  Thus when its blooming period arrives from mid- to late spring, Spring Beauty begins its process of reseeding and spreading into rather loose colonies of plants.  The pollinator transports seeds from one flower to another. Each fertile flower produces an ovoid capsule containing several seeds; this capsule is enclosed by two persistent sepals.

Frequent Pollinators: Andrenid bees, honey bees, bumblebees as well as many species of flies.


Ecological Characteristics

Claytonia virginica is a common wildflower that occurs in every county of Illinois.  (see Distribution Map) 

 In 1995, Swink and Wilhelm developed the original formula for assessing how probable a plant species is likely to occur in a landscape relatively unaltered from it’s pre-settlement condition.  A “C score” of 0 indicates that the plant can adapt to a wide range of habitat whereas a “C of 10” indicates that the plant grows only in an undegraded natural community.  In Illinois, Spring beauty has a very low coefficient of conservatism or (C=2).  Habitats include moist to dry deciduous woodlands, savannas, thinly wooded bluffs, city parks etc.  Preferably, Spring Beauty grows in a habitat that ranges from moist to slightly dry conditions.  Claytonia virginica thrives in rich loamy soil with abundant organic matter and dappled sunlight.


Importance to the ecosystem

Claytonia virginica plays a noble role in its natural ecosystem.  In order to effectively reseed, Spring beauty subjects itself primarily as a source of food.  As mentioned before, insects such as bees and flies frequently visit the flowers seeking nectar and pollen.  Small rodents dig up and eat the corms or a system of roots that grow like potato tubers.  And as for the foliage, it occasionally becomes a food source for White-Tailed Deer.  Spring Beauty acts as a sign that spring has arrived and the woods are filled with diverse wildflowers.  An absence of spring beauty from woodlands indicates that the habitat has been subjected to severe degradation due to human exploitation in many cases.



Relationship with other species

Non- human: In order to disperse its seed, Spring beauty coexists a source of nutrition for insects, rodents, deer etc.

Human: Claytonia virginica has had an extensive historical relationship with humans.  The genus is distributed throughout North America and Australiasia making it accessible for anyone from Native American tribal people to modern scientists to gardeners.  Spring beauty experienced its claim to fame when humans first recognized it as a viable food-source.  Both the Iroquois and Algonquin dined on the boiled or roasted tubers because they made for a good source of snacking and taste just like potatoes.  Today, collecting wild Spring beauty is controversial, due to issues of conservation but they can be purchased at nurseries that grow their plants on-site instead of in the wild.  Spring beauty has also entered the lab of many scientists who are interested in the plant’s inconsistent number of chromosomes.  Scientists don’t fully understand why Spring beauty has chromosomes that vary from one plant to the next whereas almost every other species requires fixed chromosomes.

Pest: No known pests specific to Spring beauty.



Fun facts

  • Spring beauties are members of the Portulaceae family, a relatively small group of 20 genera and 600 species of herbs and shrubs.
  • Spring beauty corms were dug up and eaten by Native American children who called them underground “candy.”
  • During the California gold rush when fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to find, miners would eat the nutritious and tasty plant to keep them from contracting scurvy.  Spring beauty (Claytonia perfoliata) became known as miner’s lettuce.