Spring has sprung, and warmer weather is finally elbowing out the cold. Our daffodils are shooting up, though our crocuses haven’t peaked through yet. A glance at the landscape makes me still think its winter, but the bird and small mammal activity tell me otherwise. Examining a branch, I can see the buds swelling as the flowers are getting ready to bloom. I can’t wait because the leaf-out is one of my favorite times of year!
I’ve also been checking for signs of trilliums. If you have never seen a trillium, you are missing out. Native to Asia and most of North America, these delicate three-petaled flowers are a special spring treat. Trilliums (Trillium spp) are early spring beauties that show their faces before the leaves on the trees are fully mature and block the sunlight from reaching the forest floor.
Here in Upstate New York, Great White Trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum) appear on our property at the beginning of May, about the same time as the mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) and jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum). Depending on where you live, they may appear between March and May. Check out this map to see if trilliums grow where you are (US only): http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=TRILL.
As of August 2013, the World Checklist of Selected Plant Families had recognized 44 species of trilliums, ranging in color from white, to yellow, to purple. Scientifically, they are classified as rhizomes, many groups of which have a modified stem that grows underground from which they send out roots and shoots. Other common rhizomes that you may be familiar with are ginger, asparagus, and irises. In the trillium family, the stem is underground, and the parts that we see aboveground grow on what is called a scape. The true leaves of the trillium plant grow underground, wrapped around the rhizome (root), and above the ground, three leaf-like bracts grow nearly horizontally to the ground (in many species). These bracts are photosynthetic. Above them, a single three-petaled flower pours, set in three sepals which look like small leaves that house the petals. Some species have flowers that are born directly from the bracts, and others have flowers that sit a bit higher on a short stalk, as with the Great White Trillium in our woods. Unlike the Great White, some species have flowers that droop down toward the ground.
In addition to their unique beauty, trilliums are also unique in their method of reproduction. After the flower withers, the three green leaf-like bracts remain, and the seeds are produced within a berry which droops to the ground (I actually have not seen one of these – I will have to keep my eyes peeled). When the fruit dries, the seeds fall to the ground. There, they may germinate in the rich humusy soil, or be carried by ants, which eat part of the seed then discard the remains, whence the seed would be germinated if lucky. This is the trillium’s distribution mechanism. Not all seeds will germinate, and those that do may take two years or more to do so. A germinated seed may take up to ten years to reach sexual maturity.
Trilliums also employ another method of producing new above-ground plants in which shoots take off from the nodes of subterranean stems. These plants will be genetically the same as the parent plant and thus useless for sexual reproduction with other flowers that are connected to the same root. Never the less, this method of asexual reproduction does still hold importance for the species as it increases the number of individual flowers that are available for pollinization, and can increase the total number of seeds produced if cross pollinated.
Though I found no data on any trillium species being listed as endangered or threatened in the United States, wild trilliums are of special concern due to habitat loss and unregulated taking. Many states, such as New York, have laws in affect that prohibit picking or digging them up to transplant on private property from public areas. Unfortunately, their delicate beauty is actually caused by fragility in the plant; trilliums are easily damaged, and picking the flower or even a petal will cause the plant to refrain from producing seeds that year. Attempting to transplant entire plants from the wild is also likely to damage the plant sufficiently so that it does not survive. As well, per their longevity and slow reproduction, wild populations generally don’t pop back well after disturbances, needing the right conditions of shade/sun, fertilized ground, little competition, and undisturbed areas for periods of time. Another common threat to wild trilliums is deer who seem to not be effected by a toxin within the plant and will eat them when it is opportune.
With all of their beauty, I highly encourage you to get out this spring and try to find some yourself. A local, wooded state or federal park may have some trilliums that you can to see. If you do your research first on the internet or by phone to inquire if they do you may have a better change of seeing some. In past years, I found that I always missed them because it seems to early yet to go hiking – but it’s not, there is beauty even as the first signs of spring are appearing. If your local park does have these beautiful plants, be sure to remember a few tips to help protect them: 1) Stay on the trail, as treading off it can damage plants or habitats of small animals. 2) Keep your dog on a leash and your children under control/on the path to minimize disturbance. 3) NEVER pick flowers, dig up whole plants for transplanting, or collect seeds without written permission from a conservation agency.
Here are some other ways that you might choose to enjoy the beauty of these delicate flowers. These activities are especially fun with children or the young at heart:
1. Draw or paint a live plant
2. Plant Photography
3. Write a poem or song about your trillium
4. Plant a species of trillium in your own garden. Remember to purchase from a reputable nursery, making sure that they are growing their own stock and not taking from the environment. With the advent of the wonderful internet, it shouldn’t be too hard to find one. I would suggest Plant Delights Nursery at: http://www.trilliumplants.com/ to get you started. If you have children or pets, take caution for trilliums do contain a toxin that can have mild effects if ingested.
5. Keep a nature journal that includes the life of your trillium, from the first shoots coming up to the withering of the bracts in the fall. Or, if you want to do it for a shorter period of time, record only during the time of the flowering or seed maturation and distribution.
6. Make a trillium. Photo and simple craft directions by Kirsten Guillera available at https://www.pinterest.com/pin/181340322468506649/.