By Jim Wright
Hammond’s Yellow Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica var. hammondiae) is a tiny wildflower protected by The Nature Conservancy — and found only in a few secluded patches of wet meadow in the northwest corner of densely populated New Jersey.
In The Conservancy’s 100-acre Arctic Meadows Preserve, a rare inland acidic seep combined with the unique underlying geology and soils has created a habitat where Hammond’s Yellow Spring Beauty can flourish.
What’s the big deal?
“This is the only place on the planet, the only place in the universe, that we know it occurs,” says New Jersey State Botanist David Snyder.
That’s why, on a sunny spring morning this year, botanists from as far away as central Pennsylvania made a pilgrimage to the foothills of the Kittatinny Mountains. They wanted to see a wildflower that’s smaller than a dime but priceless nonetheless.
“This is the whole world’s population right here,” says Tim Draude, a consulting botanist from Lancaster, Pa. “I love seeing new things, and it’s hard not to fall in love with these little guys. They’re so beautiful.”
When the botanists visited Arctic Meadows in late April, perhaps 100 of the delicate wildflowers had bloomed. Two weeks later, the meadows were awash with Hammond’s Spring Beauties — as if Mother Nature had sprinkled daffodil-yellow confetti across the soggy landscape.
Wild indigo duskywing butterfies fluttered about. A green darner dragonfly zipped back and forth. Nearby, a black-throated green warbler and a pileated woodpecker cackled. A Southern meadow frog settled nicely alongside a clump of wet moss.
All served as reminders that New Jersey has its own areas of natural paradise.
More than five decades earlier, when naturalist Emilie K. Hammond came across that same scene, she noticed something odd.
The wildflowers reminded her of the common Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), one of the most widespread native perennials in the eastern United States. In this meadow, however, the Spring Beauty’s blooms — typically white or pinkish — were all a deep yellow. What was going on?
Hammond dutifully reported her discovery to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, which researched the flower and categorized it as another color form of the common Spring Beauty. In short: interesting but nothing too out of the ordinary.
Hammond’s find was mostly forgotten until the mid-1980s, when a friend of hers saw a house under construction not far from the precious meadow. She passed along her concerns to a young heritage botanist who worked for The Nature Conservancy. His name: David Snyder, who would one day become New Jersey’s state botanist.
The more Snyder looked into the situation, the more curious he became. These Spring Beauties were growing in an unexpected location, on sedge tussocks in standing water on a meadow surrounded by a thicket of hemlocks and rhododendrons.
Each and every bloom was yellow, whereas typical color variations of the flower were typically found alongside the pinkish or white one. And, as Snyder found out through repeated visits, these Spring Beauties kept blooming long after their common cousins had closed up shop.
Snyder eventually determined that this was a new type of Spring Beauty altogether, found only in or near these remote wet meadows.
“They are a reminder that relatively undisturbed natural areas still exist, even in close proximity to large metropolitan areas,” says Peter Zale, Ph.D., Breeder and Curator of Plants at Longwood Gardens.
In the 1990s, The Nature Conservancy bought the 77-acre property to protect the rare flower, and has added 23 acres of adjacent land to increase the buffer since then. Conservancy land steward Scott Sherwood and his family live nearby to keep an eye on the unique meadow.
“Only in this limited area do we find this rare flower because only here do the conditions meet its specific needs,” says Barbara Brummer, New Jersey State Director for The Nature Conservancy. “That’s why it’s so important that we protect it.”
As a result, visitation is restricted to scientific research by advance arrangement — like the botanists who made that late-April trek to see it in bloom.
According to Snyder, Hammond’s Yellow Spring Beauty may lack any economic value, but it’s still important to anyone who values nature’s diversity and uniqueness.
“It’s really something that right here in New Jersey you can walk through that rhododendron thicket and see thousands of specimens of a plant that occurs nowhere else in the world,” says Snyder. “That should make you smile.”
Freelance writer, author and photographer Jim Wright is a New Jersey trustee for The Nature Conservancy.