Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
The trillium is one of nature’s most amazing wildflowers. Think of it: how can something so beautiful appear to have been calculated by a mathematician? But consider its name: trillium — three of everything. The foliage, petals, anthers, and seed capsules appear in threes or in multiples of threes. Why? Only nature knows, but the result is spectacular.
Experience has taught us to know a trillium when we see it. We had spotted a few different species, but hadn’t a clue that 38 species of trilliums exist (not all in the United States). A large number of common names, such as wake robin, wood lily, trinity flower, sweet Betsy, and toadshade are used to identify these beautiful plants.
Frederick H. Utech, Ph.D., curator of botany at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History from 1988 to 1999, spent more than 15 years as part of an international team of trillium-loving botanists determined to observe, measure, and collect trillium samples from sites where they primarily occur — eastern North America, along the Pacific Northwest coast, and in Japan.
The botanists all agreed that trilliums fall into three basic categories, each one determined by how the flower is attached to its stalk. The “erect” (and most common) group has the flower stalk growing out the three leaves below; the “nodding” group appears to have its flower stalk attached above the leaves, but the slender stalk curls down to the point where it appears to be below the leaves (very crafty). Finally, the “sessile” group has a stalk between the leaves and the ground, but the flower grows directly from the center of the three leaves, with no stalk at all.
Those of you who live in or near Pennsylvania are lucky. Plants of all three types occur in western Pennsylvania, so you can study each kind firsthand.
Within the United States and Canada, trillium habitats range from the wet cypress swamps in the Florida panhandle to the shady mountainsides of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the East, to the Pacific coastal areas of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in the West. Idaho, however, insists upon being different. It’s a real stretch to think that the lush, green trillium would have relatives that thrive on Idaho’s sun-baked, volcanic slopes, but they’re there.
Depending upon the species and your source of information, it takes somewhere between five and 10 years, possibly longer, for a trillium seed to grow into a flowering plant. The first year’s growth is underground. Rhizomes (subterranean plant stems) develop, which lead to leaf production the following spring. Additional leaf growth occurs annually for several more years. Several years after that, leaves and a flower appear in spring.
We’re probably safe in assuming that most of you are not plant geneticists, but trillium lovers can learn a great deal about the plant simply by looking at its height, leaf shape, flower color, size, and odor — yes, odor. When in bloom, the flowers of the yellow trillium luteum in Tennessee smell like lemon. On the other hand, the dark purple flowers of the trillium foetidissimum in Louisiana smell like rotten meat. Make sure to take the first deep breath of trillium aroma from a considerable distance, just in case.
The great white trillium (or large-flowered trillium) trillium grandiflorum, belongs to the lily family, although some folks insist it has its own genus. No sense arguing with either side. It is perhaps the best-known trillium in the United States, both for its beauty and its relatively common occurrence. Trillium lovers claim that this species often covers entire slopes with blossoms. As with other trilliums, however, each plant’s single flower blooms only once a year. That’s why you should never pick trillium flowers. Once a trillium blooms, the plant won’t produce another flower until the following year.
The size of the great white’s flower varies, depending on the plant’s age and health. Leaves, on the other hand, are huge, compared to the height of this species. Leaves that are 2 inches to 6 inches long can grow on a plant only 6 to 10 inches tall. The flower of the great white trillium starts out snowy white, but as the flower ages, it turns pink. Interestingly, each flower changes color on its own timetable. One source indicated that this occurs only after a flower is pollinated. While this may be true, we haven’t been able to verify the tie between pollination and change in color.
As with most trilliums, great whites prefer living in damp, humus-rich soil, on hardwood slopes with not too much sun or shade. An Asheville, North Carolina, resident has reported that during most years she’s seen trilliums in full bloom along the Blue Ridge Parkway from mid- to late- May. The year we traveled the parkway, we were not in time to see them bloom. But we didn’t know what we were missing; we were entranced by the displays put on by other plant species.
Trilliums are victims of their own beauty. The plant likely would be featured in nearly everyone’s garden if its growth cycle wasn’t so lengthy. Still, trilliums are all too often sold by nurseries in quantities that would seem to indicate that they were looted from wild colonies, a practice that contributes to their increasing scarcity in the wild. With the great white trillium, this is not a problem — at least not yet. But with less common species, the practice pushes them ever closer to extinction. It’s possible to buy trillium seeds and grow this plant on your own if you’re the patient sort. You plant, wait, and during the interval between seeding and flowers, whet your appetite for beauty by pulling out your wildflower field guide and seeking trilliums in the wild. See you there.