What is Clintonia?

O. Parker

Clintonia borealis is a species of low-growing perennial that thrives in wooded areas and cool damp climates. A common name for Clintonia borealis is "blue bead," in reference to the brilliant blue berries that form after the flowers fade. Clintonia borealis is in the family Liliaceae, commonly referred to as the lily family.

Some compare the flavor of clintonia leaves to that of a cucumber.
Some compare the flavor of clintonia leaves to that of a cucumber.

Individual plants grow 6 to 12 inches (about 15 to 30 cm) tall and produce green leaves that emerge from the soil line in a clump of three to five leaves. The deep green leaves are oval shaped. A leafless flower stalk emerges from the center of each clump of leaves and grows 12 to 18 inches (about 30 to 45 cm) tall before producing a cluster of between three and six yellow or greenish-yellow flowers. Individual plant colonies, both in the wild and in a domestic setting, spread from underground runner roots as well as from seed.

The leaves of clintonia may be chopped and added to a salad.
The leaves of clintonia may be chopped and added to a salad.

Clintonia borealis thrives in cool areas where summer temperatures rarely rise above 75°F (about 23.8°C). Though intolerant of prolonged heat, this plant is not frost tender and can survive in climates where winter temperatures regularly drop as low as -40°F (about -40°C). The foliage dies back each winter, and the root system goes dormant for the frozen months. The foliage should be cut back in winter or early spring before the new growth begins to emerge.

In a wild setting, Clintonia borealis grows in the damp shaded forest floor and other woodland areas. In a domestic setting, it thrives in damp, shaded areas where most sun-loving plants cannot survive. Clintonia borealis makes a good ground cover in dense shrub beds or in shaded border areas.

As an culinary plant, the fresh tender leaves are used chopped in salads and are said to resemble a cucumber in taste. The leaves emerge wrapped in a cylindrical shape and gradually unfurl as they mature. For the kitchen, the leaves are best harvested in the spring before they unwrap into their oval shapes. Though temping, the blue berries are mildly toxic to humans, but birds and small mammals find them irresistible.

Propagation by seed is time consuming but relatively reliable. Seeds, collected and cleaned in the fall, should be planted immediately and kept in a cold frame or greenhouse. Germination takes anywhere from three months to one year. Plant division is a faster way to propagate Clintonia borealis. The plants are dug up and divided in the spring, just as the new growth is beginning to emerge.

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