Friday, March 12, 2010

LOOK FOR: Fairy Spuds, More Commonly Known as Spring Beauties

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Photo credit: PIWO
Spring beauties are not a showy flower, but we find their little blooms dainty and adorable. They're one of the first to bloom among the flowers called spring ephemerals: perennial flowers that emerge every spring on the forest floor, before the trees leaf out, then fade into the background (or die back entirely to the ground) until next spring. They're also one of the longer-lasting blooms, so you've got a wider window of opportunity to find them.

We actually start looking for spring beauties in January. Not the flowers, but the little leaves. They're skinny like a little blade of grass, but more succulent -- spring beauties are actually related to purslane. (And like purslane, the leaves are edible.)

Photo credit: Cowtools
By mid-March, the spring beauties are blooming. The flowers are small (maybe 3/4" wide) and low to the ground -- the entire plant usually doesn't grow any taller than 4 to 6 inches. At any other time of year, they'd be easy to overlook. In early spring, though, they're a major part of the show before other things start blooming.

The flowers have 5 petals that can be white or light pink. If you look closely, you'll see they're candy-striped with thin pink lines pointing to the center of the flower. And just in case that doesn't tip off the pollinators well enough, the center opening of the flower is highlighted with little yellow spots.

Watch for how the flowers react to the weather. On a sunny day, they'll open wide. But with clouds, the petals fold back up and wait for better weather. It's another thing we love about these plants.

Photo credit: cyanocorax
By early summer, the flowers and leaves of spring beauty will shrivel up and die back to the ground. But several inches below the ground, the plant is storing energy for next spring in a little corm that can be as much as 6 inches underground. We've heard these tubers called fairy spuds -- they're starchy and edible when cooked, but each one is tiny. It would take an awful lot of energy to dig up enough fairy spuds to make any kind of meal. But apparently Native Americans and early colonists found them excellent.

We've tried a few fairy spuds from our yard -- but I think I prefer to see the flowers.

Photo credit: jbaker5(Flickr Creative Commons)
In the woods: Spring beauties can be prolific where they're not overgrazed by deer. We've come across areas that are carpeted with them, especially on hillsides where it's harder for deer to stop for a succulent snack. They'll bloom first on slopes that face south.

In your yard:  We love the spring beauties we've planted in a shady spot in our backyard. They're a great reminder to get out into the woods and see what else is coming up.

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