Trillium

I’ve always liked the sound of the word, Trillium. It’s used as a name for many businesses, housing developments, resorts and products. I probably heard the name hundreds of times before I knew what the flower looked like. The first time I saw these beautiful blooms in the woods, I understood why all these businesses would want to associate their products with this flower! Some call them the Queen of the woodland flowers.

The genus Trillium includes about 50 species of perennial wildflowers, mostly native to North America, with a few from Asia. They are called Spring Ephemeral Perennials because once the flowers are spent, the plant dies back to the ground, until next spring. All Trillium are made up of 3’s. They have 3 petals, 3 sepals and 3 leaf-like bracts, along with 6 stamens. The name is said to come from the Latin word for 3, tres, combined with the name Lilium. Though the Trillium Grandiflorum, or large white Trillium is by far the most commonly known, there are many other varieties. Trillium can have flowers that are yellow, red, pink or bicolor.

Trillium grow mostly in zones 4-5, though they are found in other areas. They appear in wooded areas under trees with deep roots, in partly shaded to shaded spots. The plants are about a foot tall, and bloom from late April to early June. Trillium Grandiflorum is white, but the petals turn pink for several days before the flower wilts. These should not be confused with a form of Grandiflorum that is truly pink, all the time. Grandiflorum may be also found with double flowers. Red Trillium go by the amusing common names of Stinking Benjamin or Stinking Willie because of their unpleasant scent.

The 3 bracts, which look like leaves, are essential for the health of the plant. In the short time after the plant comes up in the spring, until the flower is spent, the bracts need to accumulate enough food to keep it healthy until next spring. Picking the flower will seriously injure, or kill the plant. If it lives, it may take many years to recover. In Michigan, and some other states, it is illegal to pick or transplant Trillium from public lands without a permit. The Trillium Grandiflorum is protected by the Christmas Green Act of 1962, meaning you cannot remove it without permission from the landowner. Out of the 9 species native to Michigan, 4 are endangered, threatened or maybe extinct. These 4 species are protected by the Endangered Species Act. If you see Trillium in the wild, you should take only pictures, and leave the plants alone.

White-tailed deer are especially attracted to Trillium Grandiflorum and they are not subject to the protection laws. No matter how many types of food are available, if there are large white Trillium, the deer will eat those first. As you can imagine, this is pretty frustrating for gardeners who have Trillium, and deer.

Trillium, if pollinated, will form a small seed pod. Part of the seed is called the elaiosome, and it is rich with oil attractive to ants. Ants take the seeds, carry them to their nests, eat the elaiosome and discard the seed, which may eventually grow, and I do mean eventually. Trillium seeds take 2 years to germinate, they need two periods of cold dormancy.  After that, it may be 5-9 years until they flower. Between ants spreading the seeds, and the long growing time, Trillium do not spread very far, very fast. Once they are established, though, they can live for 25 years or more, if undisturbed.

Because Trillium is so slow to grow, most plants sold at nurseries and markets have been transplanted, we hope, with permission from the land owner. I bought two large white Trillium at a farmers market 2 years ago. Planted in 2008, only one showed up in 2009, and it had a single flower. This year, still only  one plant, but it has 3 flowers. I’m hopeful that each year it will have more flowers, until I have a large cluster.

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3 Responses to “Trillium”

  1. Kem Says:

    There used to be a large patch of trillium in the woods on the back of my parents’ farm. I would make a point of walking back there in the spring just to see them. I never tried transplanting one because I was afraid I would kill it. We’re too far south here to grow them, I think. Nice pictures.

    • margaretsgarden Says:

      The Grandiflorum may not grow where you are, but there are other varieties that can grow much further south. You could probably find one that would grow for you.

  2. Kem Says:

    That is a thought. Hmmm…more plants! 🙂

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