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Ozark Spring Beauty

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, April 15, 2011

Written by Theo Witsell, ANHC Botanist
Reprinted from Fall/Winter 2007 issue of Claytonia, Newsletter of the Arkansas Native Plant Society

Images by Brent Baker, ANHC Botanist

The Ozark spring beauty (Claytonia ozarkensis Miller & Chambers) was described as a new species in 2006, making it one of the “newest” plants in Arkansas. The plants had been known to Arkansas botanists for years but had been mistaken for disjunct (far-from-home) populations of the Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana). As it turns out, however, the Arkansas plants, at least those that grow on bluffs, are this new species.

Ozark spring beauty grows in a remarkable habitat – on fairly dry, shaded sandstone bluffs, often under rock overhangs. It roots deep in cracks and crevices in the rock, seemingly in no soil at all. Its leaves are much wider than the common Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), which is common throughout the state, even occurring as a lawn “weed” in many areas. C. ozarkensis, on the other hand, is presently known in Arkansas only from Faulkner, Cleburne, and Van Buren Counties, with an old (1955) collection from southern Washington County. It is also known from southern Missouri and eastern Oklahoma, where it is very rare, and nowhere else in the world.

Ozark spring beauty habitat - dry, shaded sandstone bluffs.

One day in late March, I, along with ANPS members John Pelton and Bob Clearwater, accompanied Genevieve Croft and Kate Waselkov (two researchers from Washington University in St. Louis) to three of the known Ozark spring beauty sites in Arkansas. We saw literally thousands of plants at these three sites in Faulkner & Cleburne Counties. As I stood at the base of a bluff studying these beautiful plants, one baffling question kept coming to mind. How in the world do the seeds of this species get into the deep crevices where they germinate and take root? As the members of our little expedition stood around and discussed this, several hypotheses were put forward. “The capsules must explode and sling the seeds in every direction” or “maybe ants or some other bluff-dwelling insect transports the seeds back into the cracks”… Yet we didn’t see any signs of ants or other insects around the bluffs and it was hard to imagine seeds getting thrown back into those cracks. So the question remained with me as we left and eventually faded away as more mundane matters took over my brain.

Plants root deep in cracks and crevices.

Then in late April I took my friend Paul, a botanist from Missouri, to see the plants and I believe we found the answer. In fact, we witnessed one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen in nature. The stems, which had been cascading down from the crevices in March, with the flowers facing out away from the bluffs, were now in full fruit. But the stems had turned around and were stuffing the mature seed capsules back into the bluff! In many cases the capsules had found cracks and crevices in the bluff and were being inserted right into them. We can only assume that the seeds either germinate in the capsule or are deposited in the crevice where they germinate. I am still impressed every time I think about this amazing adaptation to such a challenging and inhospitable habitat.

While the species description of the Ozark spring beauty says that the flowers are white (vs. pink or candy striped in C. caroliniana and C. virginica), a trip to the Arkansas populations will show that, while the average color of the flowers is white to very pale pink, dark pink and candy-striped flowers are not all that uncommon. It should also be pointed out here that there are plants from non-bluff habitats in at least two stations in Pope and Van Buren Counties that key out to Claytonia caroliniana in Miller & Chambers’ key, though they show C. caroliniana only east of the Mississippi River this far south. These plants have only a single bract in their inflorescence (vs. several in C. ozarkensis), have wide leaves, and often have prominent pink veins in their petals. Further study is needed to determine whether or not these plants are really C. caroliniana, a wideleaved form of C. virginica, or perhaps a hybrid between C. ozarkensis and C. virginica. As is often the case, there is still a lot to discover about these remarkable native plants.

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