Western Spring Beauty: Claytonia lanceolata

Western spring beauty

Claytonia lanceolata

Plant with 5 purple petals

© 2000 by James L. Reveal


The corm of a spring beauty

small, bulb covered in dirt

© 2000 by James L. Reveal

Back at Fortunate Camp on August 22, George Drouillard had brought Lewis three roots that he had claimed as booty after a chance encounter with a family of Lemhi-Shoshone Indians. One was the bitterroot, one was an edible valerian. The third was the one that impressed him most, and he proceeded to describe it with considerable interest. It was, he wrote,

about the size of a nutmeg, and of an irregularly rounded form, something like the smallest of the Jarusolem artichoke, which they also resemble in every other appearance. they had become very hard by being dryed these I . . . boiled agreeably to the instruction of the Indians and found them very agreeable. they resemble the Jerusalem Artichoke very much in their flavor and I thought them preferable, however there is some allowance to be made for the length of time I have now been without vegitable food to which I was always much attatched. these are certainly the best root I have yet seen in uce among the Indians.

He asked the Indians who were camped with his party at Fortunate Camp to show him the plant that grew from the root, and was told they did not grow thereabouts. The following spring, he came upon it again. On June 25, on the branch of Hungery Creek where they "nooned it," Sacagawea brought the captains "a parcel of roots" that Lewis immediately recognized as the kind Drouillard had given him ten months earlier. Once more Lewis compared it, "in flavor an consistency," with the Jerusalem artichoke. Then he dropped some important clues to its true identity. It had, he said, "two small oval smooth leaves placed opposite on either side of the peduncle just above the root. the scape is only about 4 inches long is round and smooth." Undoubtedly this was the western spring beauty, Claytonia lanceolata. Two days later he collected a specimen, somewhere near Bald Mountain, if the date on the specimen sheet is correct.

The Swedish biologist Carl Linneaus (1770-78) already named a genus Claytonia (clay-TONE-ee-uh) for the early Virginia naturalist John Clayton (1694-1773).1 This species was first described and named, and placed under Linneaus's genus, by Frederick Pursh in 1813. The term lanceolata (lan-see-oh-LAY-tuh) refers to the lance-shaped—not oval—leaves. Eaten raw, this tuber—actually a corm, or underground stem—is said to taste like a radish, but when properly cooked, its flavor and texture resemble that of a baked potato.


Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committe

1. Paul Russell Cutright, Lewis and Clark: Pioneering Naturalists (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 157–58.