The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size.
~Gertrude S. Wister
The change in our clocks this past weekend is one of the ways most of us know that spring is on the way in spite of the cold the past few weeks. Another are the first truly warm days like we are now having. But, for me, I know it is spring when I discover the first wildflowers of the season in our woods. One of the earliest is one of my favorites, the diminutive Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica.
I saw this one yesterday afternoon, just barely poking its flower head above the leaf litter as I was walking through the yard. I immediately stopped and thought, it really is Spring! I got down on my hands and knees to take a closer look at the delicate beauty of the plants’ five petals. The petals can be quite variable, ranging in color from white to pink, but almost all have pinkish lines which appear to converge on the center of the flower. My flower has very faint lines, the so-called “bee guides”, which pollinators can see better than us. Research has shown that these lines on flower petals are used to guide the pollinators to the nectar when they visit a flower. A small ground-nesting bee collects the pollen from this plant and feeds it to its larvae. The aptly-named Spring Beauty Bee, and a few other species of small insects (especially a species of Bee Fly around here) are the primary pollinators.
And the pollen is quite noticeable on this species of flower – it is pink. You can see the pink pollen in the pollen baskets on the legs of the Spring Beauty Bee as it goes from plant to plant on warm, sunny days. The flowers tend to open mid-morning and close by late afternoon, and may remain closed all day on cloudy or rainy days. This helps preserve the pollen to increase the chances that a bee will visit on a sunny day and cross pollinate the plant.
In addition to the beauty and complexity of the flowers of Spring Beauty, it also has an edible small tuber which is quite tasty to us, and a variety of wildlife. It is a great small plant for your home garden as it is deer-resistant. It can add a splash of color to your woodland garden for a few weeks each spring, before the whole plant goes dormant. It then remains most of the year as only an underground tuber until you need another pick-me-up glimpse of a delicate spring flower after next year’s long winter. This tiny, often overlooked flower, is a perfect example of why we all need to become more aware of our native species and why we should try to plant local natives whenever possible. In today’s New York Times, there is a great op-ed by native plant guru, Doug Tallamy, on why natives are important, Take a look, it is a good read. Then get outside and learn more about native plants in your area, and consider planting some for yourself, and for your local wildlife.