SPRING BEAUTY, Claytonia caroliniana
The open, cup-shaped flowers of spring beauty are easily available to most any insect
pollinator and, although they flower only briefly during a chilly time of year when insects
are scarce, the pink-striped white flowers succeed in attracting more than 50 insect species.
One of these, a species of Andrena bee, ties its fate tightly to spring beauty, as it only collects
pollen and nectar from this species and from the similar Claytonia virginica, both
of which flower for just a few days over a period of only three or four weeks. A
female Andrena erigeniae bee packs the saddlebags on her back legs with spring
beauty’s pink pollen, takes it to an underground chamber that she has excavated,
gathers it into a ball, and lays an egg on top of the pollen. Though she is only about
8 millimeters (one-third of an inch) long, her chamber may be almost 6 inches deep,
with several chambers off to the sides. The temperature range in which she can be
active limits her pollen collecting to sunny days. If you lie down in a patch of spring
beauty on a warm, sunny day, you’ll almost certainly see this furry black bee.
Two species of spring beauty are common in the Northeast. C. caroliniana has
broader, spatula-shaped leaves, and C. virginica has narrow, grass-like leaves.
Otherwise, the two species and their habitat tastes are similar.
Like many other plants, both spring beauties moved north as the Wisconsin
glacier retreated, and they are two of the many species that fall within Reid’s paradox
– the finding that the northern movement of post-glacial plants took place far more rapidly
than seems possible, considering that most seeds land quite close to home. Spring beauty
seeds have a glob of what might be called “ant candy” stuck to one end, and ants are the
primary dispersers of their seeds. But ants carry seeds for a short distance and the northern
range of spring beauty would still be many hundreds of miles south of its present range without another carrier – possibly deer, which browse spring beauty leaves. Perhaps the odd seed
ends up in their droppings and explains this plant’s rapid recolonization achievement. By the
way, the leaves taste good to people, too.
COMMON TOOTHWORT, crinkleroot, two-leaved toothwort, Cardamine diphylla
I’ll always associate toothwort with the happy job of pulling out maple taps, which occurs
when toothwort’s delicate leaves and white flowers cover the newly bare ground. In places,
it’s impossible not to step on them. Their roots, more properly called rhizomes, are barely
beneath the surface and a carelessly placed heel shows that another of toothwort’s names,
crinkleroot, is well-earned.
True ephemerals that they are, there will be no sign of their existence in another month.
The leaves turn an autumnal yellow before vanishing, something I’ve never noticed about
spring beauty or trout lily, but a more careful look at those species may be called for.
Common toothwort leaves have three-parted, indented leaflets, though they are not
deeply cut like those of the plant’s close relative, cut-leaved toothwort (C. concatenata).
In addition to basal leaves, there are two leaves on the flowering stem. As is the case
with all its mustard family relatives, the flowers have four petals. They are pollinated
by bumblebees, small bees, and flies. The pretty flowers apparently are mostly just
for show as this plant is said to only rarely reproduce by seed.
The crisp-textured root, both raw and cooked, is said to taste like water cress and
can be added to salads. Many Native American groups used toothwort for both food
The larvae of a small butterfly, the West Virginia white (Pieris virginiensis),
feed almost exclusively on toothwort leaves, and the adults, which fly only in
April and May, get nectar from this and other spring wildflowers. This butterfly species is declining throughout its range, and although habitat loss might
be part of the reason, a bigger factor is that the butterflies have taken to laying their eggs
on garlic mustard. In fact, they prefer garlic mustard to toothwort and, sadly, garlic mustard
leaves are toxic to the larvae and they fail to develop. This is called an “oviposition mistake,”
and, given the rampant spread of garlic mustard, it may be a big mistake.