Trilliums bloom in mid-spring

Before the trees have large enough leaves to shade the forest floor, the ground comes alive with early spring growth. These plants benefit from the sunlight that only reaches the ground during this season of beginnings. They emerge, bloom and set seed quickly and once the trees shade the area, they fade away and go back into dormancy. Here in western Kentucky the trilliums bloom in mid-April. I took a trip to my friend's woods to see the Trillium cuneatum (pictured above in the header) in bloom. They grow in small patches all through her wooded property along with Claytonia virginica (spring beauty), Arsculus pavia (red buckeye), Delphinium tricorne (spring larkspur) and Erythroniums (trout lilies.) People who think wooded areas have very little interest are simply not looking.

Types of trilliums and where they grow

The Trillium is a beloved sign of spring and they bloom in wooded areas from February to June, depending on the species and the area of North America where they are located. There are 39 species of trilliums in North America and 49 species world-wide and they are hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9. They are known by many common names; wake robin, wood lily, sweet Betsy, whippoorwill flower and the French call their native white trillium trille blanc. They all share a distinctive appearance with a solitary bloom that sits atop a stem with three leaves. However, these leaves are not actually leaves. They are bracts, very much like the bracts of a poinsettia or bougainvillea. They emerge from rhizomes which are fleshy roots, each spring and the flower blooms atop them shortly after that. There are two types of trillium blooms. The sessile types have blooms that sit directly on top of the bracts and these frequently have mottled or spotted bracts. The pedicellate have flowers that grow a short stem before they bloom above the bract. Trilliums are long-lived plants with some living over 25 years and the fleshy rhizomes multiply quickly in good conditions, forming huge colonies where conditions are favorable. Some trilliums have no discernible odor and others smell like rotten meat, which attracts pollinators. They are a low-growing plant with most species falling in the six to eighteen inch category. Trillium grandiflorum pictured below.

white trillium

Native peoples used the trillium

Native peoples included the trillium in their herbal pharmacy and it does have mild antiseptic properties, however there is no valid evidence that these treatments were medically effective. The root was ground and used to ease childbirth and labor pains while the above-ground parts treated snakebite, tumors, ulcers and sores on the body. They also made a love potion from trilliums. The woman crushed the root and rubbed it on her body and then added the crushed root to the chosen man's food. This was supposed to create an attraction to her that was impossible to resist. They did use the above-ground parts as food and included them in soups and stews. Foragers do collect them as a spring green, however responsible people only take one bract or leaf per plant so that the trillium can complete its life cycle. If the plant is harvested, this interrupts the life cycle and it cannot store food properly. It weakens the root and prevents it from emerging the next spring. Sometimes it takes a couple of years for it to recover, and in some cases it never does, so don't pick the trilliums. Some species are even rare and endangered, so leave them where you find them. Trillium luteum pictured below.

yellow trillium

Growing trilliums in your garden

Trilliums make a great addition to a shade or woodland garden. They like high shade provided by deciduous trees, acid soil conditions and a good layer of mulch. Plant along side ferns, hostas, columbines and astilbes. This will prevent bare spots when the plants go dormant. Plant the rhizomes in late summer to early fall, three to four inches deep in an area that has good drainage and room to spread. They will form lovely colonies where they are happy and you can start new clumps by dividing the roots in the fall. Trilliums have few pests, however Bambi likes to browse the foliage, so if deer are a problem, you might want to reconsider planting them. Just remember to never harvest plants from the wild unless construction threatens their habitat and always get permission from the land owners if you do. Over-harvesting in the wild is a horrible practice and even some commercial nurseries are guilty. When purchasing trilliums or other wild species, make sure that your source responsibly propagates their stock rather than wild harvests it. Since Earth Day is celebrated next week, we should all make a better effort to respect the wild places and native plants. Go out and enjoy them where they grow, learn to identify them and educate others. We only have one Earth and humans need to understand that we all make an impact with how we treat it.