Spring Beauty- An Edible Wild Root of SpringFeb 01, 2024
By Matthew Hunter
Despite its relatively small root, spring beauty was once a major food source eaten by Native American groups all across the United States. From the Bering Sea spring beauty of Alaska, to the lanceleaf spring beauty of the Western mountain states, all the way to the common Virginia spring beauty of the Eastern U.S., the roots of spring beauty were probably eaten by millions of people over the years before they abruptly went out of style a short century or so ago.
In this article we’re going to look at how to identify spring beauty and use it as a food in hopes that more people will start eating this wonderful vegetable again!
Before we begin, a few quick facts about the plant:
Spring beauties are in the genus Claytonia, which was named after the early American botanist John Clayton(1685-1773). Worldwide there are about 33 species of Claytonia, most of them from the United States, with a handful of others from both Europe and Russia. At least 7 species have enlarged edible roots, but there are almost certainly more.
Only two species of Claytonia are widespread in the eastern U.S., Claytonia virginica, or the Virginia spring beauty, and Claytonia caroliniana, the Carolina spring beauty. The pictures and description in this article are of the former, but the two species are very similar in appearance and used the exact same way.
Spring beauty is a low growing perennial herb with grass-like, succulent leaves. Because it’s often found in lawns, it’s easily mistaken for little clumps of grass until its flowers reveal its true identity.
Spring beauty is what’s known as a spring ephemeral. An ephemeral is a plant that flowers for a short time before disappearing and going dormant for the rest of the year. Flowers usually appear from March to May, but in the southern part of its range it can appear as early as mid-January.
Spring beauty flowers are about ¾ in. wide and have 5 white (sometimes pink) petals with distinct pink veins. Directly underneath the flower you’ll find two sepals (the green things that look like leafy petals). This is noteworthy, because most flowers have the same number of sepals as they do petals, so the fact that it only has two sepals is a good identifying feature.
Lastly, the anthers are also pink(see the picture below).
Habitat and Range
Spring beauty grows in moist woods and lawns. It’s actually one of the most common plants in my neighborhood, and it grows in large numbers right out in the open!
As you can see from the range map below, spring beauty is a common plant throughout the eastern U.S., but starts to disappear as you get closer to the Gulf. The line you see running from North Carolina down to Alabama is actually significant in that it clearly delineates what’s known as the Coastal Plain. Everything south of that line is a distinctly different environment with a hotter climate(as well as many different plant species). I would guess that temperature is the main factor limiting its range.
Southern Mississippi, southern Louisiana, and extreme southeast Texas(east of Houston) are also part of the lower Coastal Plain, so even though I added them to the map, spring beauty may be more rare or uncommon in these areas.
Edible Uses and Sustainable Harvesting
The whole spring beauty plant is edible, including the leaves, flowers, and roots. The roots are often called “tubers” or “corms” in the literature, but if you’re really hip you’ll use their much-cooler sounding traditional name: fairy spuds. The leaves are edible raw and have a good flavor, but they’re a little fibrous, so you’ll want to chop them up finely if you plan to use them.
The roots are what I’m after. They’re absolutely wonderful when cooked, and are nearly identical to potatoes in taste and texture. The raw roots have an acrid aftertaste and leave my throat with a very mild irritation/itchy feeling for about 30 minutes, so make sure to cook them for best results.
It’s important to scrub the roots with a vegetable brush to remove every speck of dirt before you eat them. Even then it’s hard to get it all off, so if you’re serving spring beauty roots to someone who is new to foraging, you’ll definitely want to peel the roots first(which is very easy to do once they’re cooked). The skins can also have a somewhat bitter flavor, but I don’t mind it too much.
Spring beauty roots are typically very small, the largest ones only being about an inch across on average. If you were trying to live off of them, I suppose it could be done for a short amount of time in the areas where they’re very abundant, but for most of us spring beauty roots will simply be a delightful side dish that we harvest a couple times of year purely for the fun and satisfaction of it.
As for the potential of overharvesting, spring beauty is a very abundant plant. As you harvest it you’ll quickly learn not to waste your time on smaller plants, and instead only harvest the largest ones with the biggest roots. What that means is that there will always be plenty that get left behind to grow larger and reseed the area. If you notice that your harvesting area’s population is declining, give it a rest for a while(do foragers even need to be told this?).
As an interesting side note, some California tribes would wait to harvest their root vegetables until after the flowers went to seed. Timing a plant's harvest to align with its reproductive cycle was one of numerous ways they could ensure the population quickly replaced itself and remained stable(see Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson for more information).
Spring beauty roots are reportedly eaten by squirrels, mice, chipmunks, and even turkeys! But one of the most interesting things I found while researching this article is that there is a specialist bee called the spring beauty bee(Andrena erigeniae) that feeds its larvae almost exclusively off of the pollen of spring beauty flowers. It’s a solitary species of miner bee, which means it lives alone in a little hole it digs in the ground.
Every day the spring beauty bee forages on spring beauties, covering its back legs in pink pollen and eventually forming it into little balls which it stores in its nest. It will lay a single egg on each ball, then the larvae will eat it when they hatch. Their life cycle progresses throughout the year until eventually they emerge as adults the following spring.
Pretty cool, huh? By the way, when a bee specializes on a very narrow group of plants for its pollen, it’s called oligolecty.
Spring beauty is the perfect example of why foraging is so much fun. Some people might be inclined to say that it’s just a tiny root not really worth harvesting, but if we look closely it’s much more than that.
This little plant can provide us with many educational opportunities if we take the time to get to know it(and as a homeschool parent, I’m all about education).
First, spring beauty is a history lesson. It reminds us how people before us lived, and that obtaining food wasn’t always as easy as it is today. It also reminds us where our food comes from, and it ignites our curiosity to know that such a tiny, unassuming little plant growing right under our nose is actually hiding a starchy little vegetable. Doesn’t it make you wonder what other unknown resources are hiding in plain sight?
It’s also a botany lesson. We get to learn what sepals are, and anthers, and that spring beauty has 5 white petals with pink veins. All important memorization tools that will train our minds to look closely at the world around us.
If you find a decent patch of it, spring beauty can also serve as a short-term survival food that is ready during a time when not many other caloric staples are available(early spring).
Lastly, spring beauty is an ecology lesson. We get to learn how the plant and animal world is interconnected, and that some insects are inextricably linked with plants- they can’t live without each other!
At the end of the day, if you measure spring beauty’s worth by calories gained per hour of work- it’s not worth very much. But, if you measure by the amount of FUN gained per hour- it's priceless!