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White and Pink-flowered Spring Beauty

4-26-16 spring beauty rust 094

Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica, is a familiar and welcome spring ephemeral that carpets the forest floor at this time of year.  Within a population, its blossoms range in color from white to a deep pink. You don’t usually find a range of colors within a given population, as one color is often more successful at reproducing and it eventually becomes dominant, while the other colors are eliminated.

There is a reason why both colors of Spring Beauty continue to flourish within a given population.  A red pigment interacts with two chemicals (flavenols) to produce the range of color.  Plants with a high percentage of flavenols produce white flowers.  These flavenols are a deterrent to herbivores, so in years when there are lots of slugs, white-flowered plants are more successful in producing seeds.  This would lead one to conclude that eventually pink-flowered plants would diminish in number.  However, white-flowered Spring Beauty is also parasitized by a type of fungus called a rust, Puccinia mariae-wilsoniae, which causes orange spotting and often serious deformation of the plant (see photo).

Thus, in years when slugs are numerous, white-flowered Spring Beauty flourishes and produces seeds.  In years when slugs are not numerous but fungal infection is high, pink- flowered plants reproduce more successfully.  This sporadic success of both white and pink Spring Beauty is why we continue to find them both in the same population.

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8 responses

  1. Teage

    As naturalists we rely heavily on our own observations as we discover ecological patterns and attempt to make meaning of the world around us. Our observations are either confirmed or contradicted by what others have previously observed (or perhaps represent new observations altogether). We use field guides, scholarly articles, friends, mentors, and many other resources possible to shape our understanding. This blog is one of those resources for me. I trust the content here because I trust your field skills and the depth of your knowledge about the natural world.

    I enjoy reading your posts, but I find that I often cannot distinguish between your voice and discoveries and the stories discovered by others. This post, for example, lacks any attribution/credit to the Frank Frey’s paper on this topic published in Nature. I feel like adding proper attribution will draw your audience to the incredible resource of peer-reviewed articles, illuminate how reading these can tune us into new observations (much that reading your blog may make us aware of new things to seek out while wandering through the woods), and acknowledge and respect the vast body of knowledge that others bequeath to us through their research and writing.

    Anyways, I appreciate what you do, but I often want to follow the rabbit trail of information that this blog serves as a gateway to. Having those citations/acknowledgements will hopefully facilitate this for me and others. Thanks.

    April 27, 2016 at 8:16 am

    • Hi Teage,
      You’re right – I often do not cite the sources from which I obtain my information. I consciously made the decision not to do this because of the short length of my posts and the general audience for which they are written. Often I use multiple sources as well as my own observations, and decided that given the nature of this blog, I would not include the literature citations. I am more than happy to provide sources for any of my posts to anyone who requests them – an email or comment is all that is necessary! Including them in my posts would add to the already considerable amount of time that I spend on each one, and I honestly have never had this request from any other reader, although it is a valid and reasonable one. My assumption is that all readers know that the information provided does not all come out of my head, and if they wish to “follow the rabbit trail of information” they should get in touch with me. If I hear from more readers that this is an issue for them, I will certainly consider adding sources to my posts. Thanks for your comment!

      April 27, 2016 at 10:44 am

      • Kathie Fiveash

        I agree with you, Mary, that most of us are not on the “rabbit trail.” I also know from experience that you are quick to reply to any questions and refer your readers (including me) to more detail about sources.

        April 27, 2016 at 12:50 pm

      • April

        I want to cast my vote (although I realize it’s not a plebiscite) to continue your blogs in the form that you have been. I love the snapshots you give into whatever aspect of the world you are highlighting. It’s a delectable morsel which I look forward to each morning. Any more would be overly filling. I have plenty of that the rest of the day! At times I will follow it down some rabbit hole and enjoy that experience as well, especially in the comment section. Thank you for the continued daily delight!

        April 28, 2016 at 7:23 am

  2. Kathie Fiveash

    Does this mean that Spring Beauty propagates from seeds,and is not perennial? For some reason, I think of most woodland flowers as perennial, but I don’t know why I think that.

    April 27, 2016 at 9:51 am

    • My understanding, Kathie, is that it does both. It is a perennial and has an underground tuber (said to be edible) where it stores food for next spring, but it also produces and grows from seeds.

      April 27, 2016 at 10:48 am

  3. timirvin

    fascinating. Thanks Mary!

    April 27, 2016 at 10:24 am

  4. Wow! what a wonderful and clear explanation of the evolutionary process behind the little flowers that delight us in the woods! You have made them even more beautiful for me!

    April 29, 2016 at 11:04 am

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