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posted: 4/24/2013 1:08 PM

Spring beauty wildflowers live up to their name

Native Illinois wildflower lives up to its name

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  • Spring beauty wildflowers in the front yard of St. Charles naturalist Valerie Blaine's home.

       Spring beauty wildflowers in the front yard of St. Charles naturalist Valerie Blaine's home.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • The native Illinois perennial wildflower, spring beauty, blooms on the forest floor at Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva. Its scientific name is Claytonia virginica, it grows to be about 3-6 inches tall and it is found in every county in the state.

       The native Illinois perennial wildflower, spring beauty, blooms on the forest floor at Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva. Its scientific name is Claytonia virginica, it grows to be about 3-6 inches tall and it is found in every county in the state.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer, 2008

 

There are some things in life that you just have to see for yourself. Photographs are pretty, but they're not as good as being there. Spring beauty, one of the first wildflowers to bloom in spring, is one of the world's wonders that you have to see "for real."

Spring beauty makes its debut in our oak woodlands when the ground is still moist from melting snow. Narrow green leaves emerge in March from the cold, wet mat of last year's fallen leaves on the forest floor. This year's torrential rains in April have held back the blossoms, but soon the warm spring sunshine will coax the flower buds to open. Before you know it, spring beauty blossoms will unfold in all their glory.

Spring beauty is one of the most aptly named plants in our local flora. Spring beauties form a white and pink carpet rolling up and down wooded ravines. Accented with other colorful wildflowers, the forest floor becomes an expanse of bouquets.

Spring beauty is best seen at snake's-eye level. This, of course, requires that you get down on your knees -- or, better yet, your belly.

From this vantage point, you will see that spring beauty has five delicate petals, each of which is about one-half-inch long, whitish pink, with thin purple lines. From the center of the flower arise five male structures called stamens and a three-part female structure called the style.

At the end of the stamens are anthers, and it is here that the all-important pollen is found. Look closely at those tiny anthers. Instead of your run-of-the-mill yellow pollen, spring beauty boasts pollen that is an intense pink color.

While you're down there with your chin on the ground, take the time to watch the spring beauty blossoms for a while. Suddenly, an insect will appear out of nowhere and alight on the flower. The insect will quickly extract nectar and then dash for another sip of nectar on a different flower.

All the while, the insect is laden with that hot pink pollen and transfers it from plant to plant. Soon another insect will zoom in for a landing. The process will be repeated countless times.

The forest floor is, thus, a busy smorgasbord for insects. It's a good setup for everyone involved: The insects get nutritious nectar, the flowers get pollen, and people get to enjoy the gift of beauty in the process.

With the least hint of rain, however, the petals fold and spring beauty closes up shop. There's no need for the flower to remain open if the important business of nectar and pollen exchange is washed out. This is true of many spring wildflowers, so choose a sunny day for your botanical excursions.

Spring beauty's scientific name is Claytonia virginica. The name refers to British-born botanist John Clayton, who emigrated from England to Virginia in 1715. One of a generation of prodigious plant collectors, Clayton sent North American specimens to herbaria in Europe for identification and classification.

Clayton and others worked at a furious pace to collect and catalog the vast New World flora and fauna. Spring beauty was one of the many plants John Clayton cataloged. Sadly, untold numbers of specimens he collected were destroyed in a fire set by the British in Gloucester County, Virginia. Thus, the legacy of his work is based only on botanical specimens he had sent back to Europe before the arson attack, including the lovely spring beauty.

Like many native wildflowers, spring beauty has inspired legends and folklore. An Ojibway story has it that Seegwun, the spirit of spring in the form of a healthy young man, takes the place of Peboan, the spirit of winter who is a harsh yet weakening old man. Every year Peboan blows his breath and the lakes become hard and clear. The streams stand still. He shakes his locks and snow covers the land.

But every year Seegwun comes and confronts Peboan. He shakes his ringlets and warm rain showers water the land. He breathes and birds begin to sing. Lake waters melt and streams resume their flow. Old Peboan sinks down and dissolves into rivulets of water that vanish under the old brown leaves on the forest floor.

Spring beauty and the host of other species of native wildflowers in our forest preserves are referred to as the "spring ephemerals." They are indeed short lived. Join us on a wildflower program, or take a stroll on your own to enjoy the splendor of spring.

• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. Email her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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