Unusual RI Wildflower Rediscovered After 160 Years

spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

A rare wildflower native to New England but not seen in Rhode Island since 1846 was discovered May 3 on a protected parcel of land on Block Island by staff of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey.

Three plants of spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), a tiny white flower with pink highlights and long narrow leaves, were found by Kira Stillwell, program administrator for the Natural History Survey, while she was participating in a bird banding project near Clay Head with master bander Kim Gaffett, president of the Survey’s board of directors.

“We were checking the bird nets and noticed a flower along the trail we hadn’t seen before,” said Stillwell, a Narragansett resident who visits Block Island with her daughter Bryn several times each spring and fall to band migratory birds. “It was different from anything we knew, so we got down on our hands and knees and took pictures so we could look it up.”

When Stillwell and Gaffett were unsuccessful at identifying it themselves, Stillwell plucked a stem and brought it to the Survey office in Kingston, where Survey botanist Hope Leeson made the identification. Survey board member Richard Enser, a retired biologist with the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, confirmed the identification.

According to Leeson, spring beauty grows just six inches tall and only blooms for a week or two in the spring, so it is easy to miss. It is listed as a rare species in Massachusetts and Vermont and considered a historic species in Rhode Island. The herbarium at Brown University has a specimen collected from South Kingstown in 1846, making it the last confirmed record of the species in Rhode Island. The only other known record is of a specimen of uncertain date in the 1800s at the New England Botanical Club herbarium at Harvard University that was collected from an “island in the Blackstone River.”

“I suspect it was likely more common in Rhode Island before settlement and that the continual clearing of forest here probably did it in,” said Enser, noting that it prefers rich soils. “Although apparently the bulbs of spring beauty were relished by the Indians and early settlers, so over-gathering could also have been a factor, especially for a plant that would have been uncommon.”

The Natural History Survey will record the plant’s occurrence in Block Island in the group’s database of Rhode Island wildlife and report it to the New England Wildflower Society for periodic monitoring.

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9 comments on Unusual RI Wildflower Rediscovered After 160 Years

  1. John Kenny

    I may be mistaken but I have been enjoying this plant for years at a location in Portsmouth Ri. I don’t know of any species that this could be confused with.

    • John,
      Thanks for your note about a possible occurrence of Claytonia virginica in Portsmouth. It is not out of the question that people will come forward with other occurrences. One reason we publicized this find is that we suspect the plant is still here somewhere but people don’t know we’re looking for it and haven’t submitted records. The plant is on the Rhode Island rare plant list and so if you’d like to submit the record to the Natural Heritage Program to encourage conservation of the site, you can fill out this form and submit it to RINHS, RIDEM, or the New England Wildflower Society.

  2. Lisa

    I thought I had these in my yard But mine only have 4 petals but look very similar otherwise Oh well I tried Both are very prettyI

  3. Mark Truman

    I live in RI, and while I’ve never seen one here they are certainly common in NH. Have seen many this spring from southern NH to the White Mountains.

    • There is a different species that lives to the north of us: Claytonia caroliniana. Maybe that’s what you’re seeing in NH.

  4. I think this is so exciting! Now I’ll be looking in the woods in Blank, CT where I live. Thank you for the information.

  5. I think this is so exciting! Thanx for the info. Now I’ll be looking in the woods of NOANK, CT near my home.

  6. Maybe it would be helpful to note the characteristics. According to Gleason & Cronquist, all Claytonias have 2 sepals, 5 petals and 5 stamens, and a 3-lobed style. The two in our region are perennial from a rounded corm (underground stem). They have 1 or a few basal leaves and only one pair of stem leaves. C. virginica can be distinguished from C. caroliniana by 7cm long leaves mostly at least 8 times longer than wide tapering to the base, with no petiole (leaf stem). (The other species has shorter leaves that taper abruptly and has a definite petiole.

  7. Jeffrey Hirsch

    My neighbor and I have something that blooms every spring… If if it is not this it is very similar. We have wondered for years what it was. It grows from a small bulb-like structure… here on Long Island, New York. Next spring we will have to examine it much closer!

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