Spring beauty signifies spring, with a nod to early Virginia botanist John Clayton
The unassuming spring beauty is pretty enough in itself, its star-shaped, white or pink blossoms only half-an-inch wide. But in great swaths, blushing across the sun-dappled woodland floor in early spring, Claytonia virginica is breathtaking. If you’re lucky enough to come upon that sight, pause for a moment and tip your hat to the flower’s eponym, one John Clayton, 1693-1779.
You wouldn’t have heard of Clayton, whose story has been mostly lost. We do know he emigrated from England in 1715 to join his father, John Clayton Sr., Virginia’s Attorney General from 1713-37. Educated in law, Junior signed on as Clerk of the County Court of Gloucester County in 1720 and held the job for the 53 years until his death. In 1723, he married Elizabeth Whiting, with whom he had eight children and lived on an estate apparently known as “Windsor,” on the Piankatank River, where he’s said to have created an impressive botanical garden. Such environs proved perfect for Clayton’s avocation as one of Virginia’s first plant explorers, and perhaps the one with the greatest—albeit unsung—impact.
His passion for botanizing likely grew from his friendship with Mark Catesby, whose two extended visits to the New World, first in Williamsburg then in the Carolinas, Florida and the Bahamas, led him to the first attempts at cataloguing the Colonies’ flora and fauna. Catesby returned to England, and in 1734 Clayton sent him a bevy of plant specimens. Catesby, perhaps overwhelmed with such bounty, sent it along to Dutch botanist Jan Frederik Gronovius, who, also unprepared to catalog so many new species, enlisted the aid of Carolus Linnaeus.
Yes, that Linnaeus, the Father of Botany, the Swedish physician whose system of classification laid the groundwork for modern taxonomy of all species. The basis of Linnaeus’ knowledge of North American plants? Clayton’s specimens, which he continued merrily sending to Catesby, unaware of their travels once they left his friend’s hands. At some point, Clayton also included a manuscript cataloguing species, which Gronovius rewrote with Linnaeus’ help and published under his own name as Flora Virginica in 1739, with a second volume in 1743. Without crediting Clayton.
But Linnaeus, who liked to be known as the “Prince of Botany,” did name a flower in his honor.
Nearly two decades after the Flora Virginica disappointment, Clayton wrote his own book of Virginia plants, using the Linnaean system and illustrated by the eminent botanical artist, German-born Georg Ehret. But Gronovius outflanked Clayton once again, with a 1762 edition of Flora Virginica published in Europe. Clayton sought an American publisher, but a fire in his clerk’s office destroyed his and Ehret’s work. The rest of Clayton’s papers burned with his estate in 1906.
Clayton’s specimens, however, survived, far away in Europe—including his sample of C. virginica. In 1794, Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist who sailed with Captain Cook, bought them, and they passed with his own vast collection to what is now London’s Natural History Museum (see the John Clayton Herbarium on the Web at nhm.ac.uk).
There is evidence that the lack of recognition for Clayton during his lifetime didn’t diminish his love of science: When he died in 1779 at age 86, he was the sitting first president of the “Virginian Society for the Promotion of Usefull Knowledge,” an analog of the British Royal Society and whose membership included the likes of future governor John Page and Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe, with Benjamin Franklin as a corresponding member.
And, of course, C. virginica endures, to herald spring each year. Also known as fairy-spuds, for its tiny, edible tubers, spring beauty can throw as many as 15 blossoms from a single underground stem. It only blooms in sunlight, and only for two weeks. Modest flower, ephemeral display … and an annual glimmer of the joy Clayton must have felt, happening upon a colony of tiny blooms on a spring day so many years ago.