Spring Beauty: Natural Contraception and Wild Food

As I write this my arms and face are flush with sunburn from yesterday’s 80 degree day (which  I couldn’t help but spend entirely outdoors) and a storm is raging outside my windows threatening 1-3 inches of snow in some areas tonight. Such is springtime in Pennsylvania; we humans have learned to deal with it. But the plants… all the tender spring blooms that just opened up in the warm sunshine of yesterday, the cherry blossoms, the trillium, the bloodroot, I fear frost damage will wreck these happy signs of spring. So today I ran around and photographed what I could, in case there are not there when I wake up tomorrow.

Spring Beauty Flowers

Spring Beauty Flowers

One plant in particular caught my eye: Claytonia virginica – the Virginia Spring Beauty. Such a small little thing, it is truly a wildflower. Once you notice it, you begin to notice it everywhere: growing along the banks of a wetland, popping up among the blades of grass in a lawn, in between fern fronds in a woodland… it is really a versatile flower. It is so ubiquitous throughout its range that it was readily used by the people who lived there for a whole manner of things. Perhaps the most telling use comes from a look at the Spring Beauty’s nickname: “fairy spud.” It’s basically a native wild potato, albeit a small one. It was readily collected by the Algonquin people to be roasted or boiled as a food supply in the spring and modern wild food foragers swear by the sweet chestnut-like tuber.

However the described medical uses are intriguing.  Some recommend grinding the root (which I assume is the tuber) into a powder and administering it to children with convulsions. Other applications include making an infusion from the stems to treat dandruff and make hair shiny as well as using the sap as an eye wash and brightener. All pretty reasonable stuff.

Then we get into the weird reproductive remedies. There seem to be two different uses of Spring Beauty regarding reproduction. The first (and less prevalent) use was described by Erna Gunther in 1973 in which it is documented that Quinalt women chew the plant so that the “baby will be soft when born” (Gunther 1973:29). Whatever that means. The second (and oft repeated) use is as a permanent contraceptive. The Iroquois people mixed the root of the Trout Lily with the Spring Beauty and ingested them as a contraceptive. But this remedy was all or nothing, as doing so would ensure that the girl “would never have children.”

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