Beaked Corn Salad
Valerian family (Valerianaceae)
Description: This native annual plant is 6-18" tall. It forms a low rosette during the fall and bolts during the spring. The central stem is four-sided and stout, sometimes with fine hairs along the ridges. This stem may branch dichotomously in the upper half of the plant. The opposite leaves are up to 3" long and 1" across, oblong in shape, and they usually clasp the stem. Each leaf has a prominent central vein, and a margin that is smooth or with a few coarse teeth toward the base. Usually, there are fine hairs along the margins. The upper stems produce flat-topped clusters of small white flowers. A typical flower cluster will be about ½–¾" across and contain 4-12 flowers, which are surrounded by triangular green bracts.
Each flower is about 1/8" across, and consists of a short corolla with 5 small lobes that are without notches at their tips. There are 3 white stamens, and a central stigma with a tripartite style at its tip. The blooming period occurs from mid- to late spring, and lasts about a month. There is little or no floral scent. Each flower is replaced by a ridged 3-chambered fruit that is oval-shaped and longer than it is wide. Only one chamber of the fruit is fertile, which contains a single seed. The root system consists of a slender, branching taproot that is white.
Cultivation: The preference is full sun and moist conditions. This plant will grow in soil that is loamy or somewhat gravelly. Partial sun and more mesic conditions are also tolerated, although growth will be less robust. Disease and insects don't seem to bother this plant to any significant degree. This plant has a strong tendency to form colonies by re-seeding itself.
Range & Habitat: Beaked Corn Salad occurs primarily in southern Illinois, where it is fairly common. It can also be found parts of central Illinois, where it is uncommon (see Distribution Map). Habitats include disturbed areas of moist meadows, openings in floodplain forests, glades, abandoned fields, and miscellaneous waste areas. This is by far the most common Valerianella sp. in Illinois, the other species being restricted to a few NE counties in the state.
Faunal Associations: Miscellaneous insects visit the flowers primarily for nectar, including small bees, Eumenine wasps, Syrphid flies, and other kinds of flies. Among the bees, are such visitors as Little Carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), Carder bees (Hylaeus spp.), Mason bees (Osmia spp.), and various Halictid bees. Like other species of Corn Salad, the foliage is non-toxic and may be eaten by mammalian herbivores. It is unclear if the seeds can pass through their gullets and still germinate.
Photographic Location: The photographs were taken in a gravelly waste area near a railroad in Champaign, IL, where the plants are probably adventive from the south.
Comments: This little plant can be quite showy during the spring when it forms large colonies, otherwise it is easy to overlook. Distinguishing the different Corn Salad species can be difficult without examining the shape of the fruit. The fruit of Beaked Corn Salad is longer than it is wide, and shaped like a tiny football, with three shallow ridges where the seed chambers are located. The cultivated form of Corn Salad (Valerianella locusta) is native to Europe, and rarely escapes into the wild. It has light violet flowers, while the native Valerianella spp. have white flowers. Their leaves can probably be added to salads like the cultivated form, although I have not tried this. In general, Corn Salad can be readily distinguished from Mustards and Chickweeds by its flowers, which have 5 petals that are unnotched at their tips. Mustard flowers have only 4 petals, while Chickweed flowers have 5 notched petals.