Spring Royalty

Queen Elizabeth I Portrait from WikipediaI’m always curious about the origins of words.  I was surprised a few months back to discover that Virginia and West Virginia were named after Queen Elizabeth I of England, referred to as the Virgin Queen because she never married.  Today I learned that North and South Carolina are named after King Charles I of England.

Charles I Portrait from Wikipedia

You can learn more about the etymology of U.S. State names by clicking here.

But that is not what this post is about!  It’s about Spring Beauties, two species of which can be found around here in Western New York.

 Claytonia virginica and Claytonia caroliniana have similar range maps covering a good chunk of the eastern side of North America – including a few states west of the Mississippi.  Perhaps when they were originally discovered, the former was found in the area named in honor of the Queen and the latter in an area named in honor of the King?  I don’t really know.

Claytonia virginica Claytonia caroliniana
Claytonia virginica – left; Claytonia caroliniana – right.

“What’s the difference?” you may well ask!   “And how do you remember?”

Well, I’ll tell you, but be warned… my brain has twisted ways of remembering things.  The flower on the left is C. virginica.  Notice the slender, paired leaves.  These narrow straight leaves form the letter V where they meet the stem, as in V-irginica.  OK, technically, the leaves on C. caroliniana also form a V, but read on…  The flower on the right is C. caroliniana.  Notice the more rounded leaf below… dark and out-of-focus though it is.  This leaf is rounder, like the o in car-O-liniana.

The photos above were taken last spring.  On Sunday when I was out, I found only buds…  and I didn’t get the right angle on this photo to tell which variety.  I bet by today or tomorrow, there will be blooms!
Wow - That's a Lot of Buds

For whatever reasons, eastern field guides call the Queen’s flower Spring Beauty leaving out any reference to Virginia.  The King’s flower, however is called Carolina Spring Beauty.  Newcomb’s claims that both varieties inhabit “moist woods.”  Peterson’s says that Spring Beauty (C. virginica) is found in “moist woods” and that Carolina Spring Beauty (C. caroliniana) is found in “woods and uplands.”  Whatever…

1753 Spring Beauty Herbarium Sheet by John Clayton


And what about their first name, Claytonia?  That came from John Clayton (1694-1773), an early collector of plant specimens in North America.

There are 28 species of Spring Beauties continent-wide.  If you don’t live in the virginica-caroliniana range, fear not.  Click here for information on a species near you!

Skunk Cabbage

I wrote a bit about Skunk Cabbage last spring.  It’s such an interesting plant…  It generates heat in very early spring and actually melts its way through the ice and snow so it can be the first wildflower of the season.

Let Me Out of Here

UPDATE:  “How does it do that?” asked a reader.  So I googled and found this:

A couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to see spathes growing up through a thin layer of ice, the ice melted around the spathe in a circular form. This is an indication of skunk cabbage’s remarkable capacity to produce heat when flowering. If you catch the right time, you can put your finger into the cavity formed by the spathe and when you touch the flower head, your finger tip warms up noticeably. Biologist Roger Knutson found that skunk cabbage flowers produce warmth over a period of 12-14 days, remaining on average 20° C (36° F) above the outside air temperature, whether during the day or night. During this time they regulate their warmth, as a warm-blooded animal might!

Physiologically the warmth is created by the flower heads breaking down substances while using a good deal of oxygen. The rootstock and roots store large amounts of starch and are the likely source of nutrients for this break down. The more warmth produced, the more substances and oxygen consumed. Knutson found that the amount of oxygen consumed is similar to that of a small mammal of comparable size.  (source)

Seriously… If you are interested in Skunk Cabbage, click on the word “source” above.  You will read more about Skunk Cabbage than you thought was possible to write… and it’s all pretty fascinating!

The flower is odd, resembling raw or rotting meat in color and smell, attracting the only pollinator out at this time of year:  flies.  Later in summer, it will have leaves bigger than your head!

Skunk Cabbage Green

Those leaves will have a distinctly skunky smell which leads me to question why anyone decided to try to eat them…  Except that they are quite plentiful in wetland settings and if you were looking for an easy crop, this would provide…  Or maybe someone saw turkeys munching on the stuff:

Turkeys Eat Skunk Cabbage


At any rate, here’s what the Peterson Guide To Edible Wild Plants has to say about Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus):

The thoroughly dried young leaves are quite good reconstituted in soups and stews.  The thoroughly dried rootstocks can be made into a pleasant cocoalike flour.

Warning: Contains calcium oxalate crystals; eating the raw plant causes an intense burning sensation in the mouth.  Boiling does not remove this property – only thorough drying.  Also, do not confuse the young shoots with those of False Hellabore.

Cocoalike… Hmm… Makes me want to try that!  FYI:  False Hellabore is poisonous.  Personally, I don’t think they look anything alike:

False Hellabore

Skunk Cabbage Range Map


Skunk Cabbage is found in the northeast.  Here is the range map from the USDA website.