While watching an osprey nest I noticed the ground around me was covered with spring whitlow grass (Draba verna). One of the earliest flowers to bloom in the spring, whitlow grass is also called common draba, nailwort and shad flower. Another scientific name for whitlow grass is Eriophila verna.
Spring whitlow grass is not a grass at all but rather is a member of the mustard family. This adventive (introduced) annual has a rosette of hairy basal leaves and leafless flowering stems that are an inch or two tall terminating in a small raceme of flowers. The plant is so small that it is often overlooked and hence is known as the inconspicuous mustard. The white flowers are about 1/8th of an inch across and consist of four deeply lobed petals. The petals are so deeply lobed that at first glance the flower may appear to have eight petals.
Spring whitlow grass prefers dry, open, disturbed sites. The plant completes its development in the spring and withers away by summer.
Because they bloom so early and are so small, few insects, other than an occasional bee, visit these flowers. Rabbits may nibble on the leaves in the spring, but otherwise spring whitlow grass has little value to herbivores or birds. (A jack rabbit did hop by as I was photographing the plant.)
Plants in the Draba genus were formerly used to treat “whitlows” – inflammation of the area around the fingernail.
These spring whitlow grass plants were photographed near Crystal Lake (Shasta County CA). The penny in the background of one picture helps show how tiny the plant really is. Even though they are tiny, spring whitlow grass flowers are quite beautiful.