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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