Hi, all — I’ve decided to switch things up and simply chat with you a bit about a topic that has apparently been the most popular on my blog so far: Claytonia rubra (Howell) Tidestrom. You may find yourself now asking the question, “Claytonia rubra, what is that?” Well, there’s a blog post for that.
But Claytonia rubra may be more than meets the eye, especially if you’ve been paying close attention to it where it grows in different areas, or if you’ve been so lucky as to see it from across its entire geospatial distribution. Let’s think about this for a minute, considering first the global range of Claytonia rubra.
It is across this wide and ecologically diverse distribution, north to south from British Columbia to near (probably in) Mexico, and west to east from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Black Hills of South Dakota, that the annual Claytonia rubra displays a seriously diverse range of morphologies. Is it phenotypic plasticity? Is it local adaptation? Is it speciation? Is it hybridization? Is it some mix of all of these? Claytonia rubra is a tough cookie to crack!
Starting with identification, something I’ve found to be fairly characteristic of Claytonia rubra is that its older leaves (outermost in the rosette of basal leaves), which often have the largest blades, tend to lay flat on the ground — some close relatives (like certain subspecies of C. perfoliata) do this too, or something like it, so don’t take this for a smoking gun. Furthermore, some races of C. rubra do not have basal rosettes that lay flat, rather they are elevated ever so slightly above the forest floor. Don’t you just love those kinds of dichotomous key breaks? — Is is erect to ascending (sometimes spreading), or ascending to spreading (sometimes erect)?! — Still, if you see something in the mountains of western North America like in the picture below, where the outermost (older) leaves in the basal rosette lay flat, appressed to the ground, you can be fairly confident that you are looking at something that is quite appropriately called Claytonia rubra.
For effect, compare the leaves of Claytonia rubra plants in the above picture with the leaves of the plant in the picture immediately below, C. perfoliata, both of which were photographed at the Tejon Ranch in somewhat close proximity (either side of the same mountain ridge) — see how Claytonia perfoliata (below) tends to elevate its leaves off the ground?
The characteristic of Claytonia rubra have low-growing leaves seems pretty useful, until you come across a putative lineage (sometimes in the same mountain range!) that looks like the plant below — these plants have distinctly erect / ascending leaves, although the proximal portion of their petioles are still appressed to the ground. This gives the leaves a sort of ‘S-curved’ look. Believe it or not, these are another subspecies of Claytonia rubra!
This is a time where it comes in handy to know a few other characters that, when used in combination, can help to distinguish Claytonia rubra from similar-looking miner’s lettuce.
For example, the plants photographed above demonstrate another conspicuous characteristic of most lineages of Claytonia rubra — betalain pigmentation is generally evident on the abaxial (lower) surfaces of the basal (and sometimes cauline) leaves, giving them a purple/reddish appearance. This is a sort of ‘no-brainer’ character I tend to point people towards, but just as with the characteristic basal leaf orientation I mentioned above, this morphological character doesn’t always hold true. Plants love exceptions WAY MORE than rules: in this particular case there appears to be an environmental element to variation in Claytonia betalain pigmentation, as evidenced by some unpublished observations I have made in common garden experiments involving C. perfoliata, C. rubra, and some perennials in the C. “peirsonii” complex.
OK, so the leaves are sort of laying flat, and kinda red undeneath, but you’re still not totally convinced you are looking at Claytonia rubra and not some other similar-looking miner’s lettuce. Well, you’re in luck — I’ve noticed that many races of Claytonia rubra tend to have the look of variegated leaves, possibly related to a breaking up of the cuticle during development. If you see something like the plant in the picture(s) above, where there are variegated streaks on the leaves of a Claytonia, it is VERY likely that you are indeed looking at Claytonia rubra.IF you still can’t be sure about which Claytonia you are looking at — just ask me! That’s what I am here for…