“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” H. D. Thoreau
Eastern spring beauty (Claytonia virginica, a.k.a. Virginia spring beauty, or simply, spring beauty) is a delicate little plant. At no more than eight inches tall with half-inch flowers, this five-petaled, white and highlighted pink flower is truly a beauty. This little posy was discovered on Block Island on May 3, 2015. While checking mist nets for bird banding, a visiting friend, Kira Stillwell (program administrator for the RI Natural History Survey (RINHS),) noticed and asked me about a small white flower that we were passing. What I looked at, I had passed many times this season, but what she saw, was a plant that she didn’t recognize. On hands and knees we tried to identify the little plant. When we could not, we plucked a single stem to ask RINHS botanist, Hope Leeson, for help quenching our curiosity. Little did we know that we had come upon a native perennial flower that had not been reported seen in Rhode Island since 1846!
The lesson is that, at least in the realm of natural history, observation is more than the act of looking. When engaged in observation, one must look with curiosity and a desire to understand, so as to see what is actually being viewed.
This local rediscovery of spring beauty has caused a bit of a splash in RI with discussion about when and where it was last seen. Much to the delight of the RINHS staff, the announcement of a spring beauty sighting has spawned other reports of spring beauty occurrences around the state. In 1998, RINHS published Vascular Flora of Rhode Island: A list of Native and Naturalized Plants. In that tome, spring beauty is listed with the following comments: “Historical (native species known to have been extirpated in RI)” and, “Status undetermined: needs more study.” A primary objective of RINHS is to act as surveying agent and present/not-present information repository of all things natural history. Thus, the observation of this little plant on Block Island, combined with RINHS’s role as disseminator/catalyst, is resulting in the “seeing", and the acquisition of more information about this species throughout RI.
Spring beauty is not simply beautiful, it has served its observers well over the centuries. It is a member of the purslane family and is known to be quite delicious. The vegetative parts of the plant are edible, but it is the tuber from which it grows perennially that is most often commented upon as being tasty and a source of nutrition for the early American colonists. Perhaps that is the origin of its nickname - fairy spud.
Of course, seeds are produced, and the plant can be both perpetuated from the tuber, and seeded anew by the plant. Two tiny black seeds are produced from each flower and will drop to the earth where they may reseed in place or be carried away by insects. Deer, too, will eat the plant and may help to establish it in new locations. But this all begs the question: how did this tiny colony of about three to five plants happen to pop up on Block Island? I must assume that either birds or humans tracked it to the Island.
Or perhaps the seeds of the fairy spud winged their way here on south or northwesterly breezes. In any case, I wonder how many times this year, or in previous years, I have looked at this plant and not "seen" it for what it is - a rare and precious beauty of the spring.