| May 21, 2009

Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'lakes - May 21, 2009 Trilliums!by Steve Blight

Photo: Trillium undulatum – Painted Trillium

What would spring be in Ontario without trilliums? A lot less beautiful, in my opinion. Trilliums symbolize mid-spring to me more than any other group of woodland plants, and are among the most familiar and well-liked of all of our early wildflowers.

Some plant scientists consider trilliums to be members of the Lily family, while others now believe that the trillium belongs to a separate family of plants called Trilliaceae. These long-lived perennials emerge from an underground rhizome in early spring, flower before the leaves are fully out on the trees, set seed in early summer, and usually disappear by mid-summer. Their seeds are found clustered together in a berry-like fruit that ripens in early summer. Each trillium seed has a moist fleshy part attached to it called an elaiosome that attracts ants. The ants take the seeds to their nest, eat the elaiosomes and discard the seeds, providing them with shelter until they can germinate. The seeds get the added bonus of growing in the ants’ nutrient rich “compost heap”. Once a trillium seed germinates, the first year’s growth is directed at establishing roots. In its second year, the seedling produces a single seed leaf. Three or more additional years will be required before the plant produces the familiar three-part whorled leaf, and at least seven years are needed before it flowers for the first time.

There are four trillium species found in our part of Ontario. Perhaps the best known species is the White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), also known as the Large-flowered Trillium, which is the well-known floral emblem of the province of Ontario. Its flowers are white, but fade to pink as it ages. It prefers well-drained soils in deciduous woods, particularly mature sugar maple and beech forests.

The Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum) is probably the least common trillium in our part of the province, and I don’t recall ever having seen one in Ontario. It has a smaller lavender-grey coloured flower, and the flower stem is curved downward so that the flower is usually hidden. It is most commonly found in moist or swampy woodlands.

The Red Trillium (Trillium erectum) is also known as Wake-robin or Stinking Benjamin. The flowers are dark maroon and usually appear just before those of the White Trillium. It prefers a more acid soil than the White Trillium and is found in upland deciduous or mixed white pine-deciduous forests. This trillium also has a cream or pale yellow coloured variant, which I have found several times in local forests. Many people, including my wife, say that its flower has a foul smell reminiscent of rotting meat, but I’ve never been able to detect any smell at all – which is probably a good thing!Trillium undulatum or Painted Trillium requires cool, strongly acid soils with a deep surface layer of decomposing organic matter. Often found in the company of evergreens or red maples, it has narrow white flower petals with V shaped red marks in the centre. Although I know it can be found in our area, I have seen only one colony of this gorgeous wildflower in my travels – in Gatineau Park just north of Ottawa.Trilliums are sensitive to light and do not thrive in full sunlight. For this reason, careful selective lumber harvesting will not destroy a trillium colony, whereas clear cutting can completely eliminate trilliums from the understory. Trillium flowers are a favourite source of food for deer (and cows), and repeated grazing will kill the plants. Like grazing, picking trilliums including the green leaves will damage or kill them because trilliums depend on the green leaves for photosynthesis. If the plant survives after being picked, the leaves cannot regenerate until the following year.

The only problem with trilliums is that they tend to look their best just when the blackflies are at their worst. Insect repellent and bug shirts can be very helpful for those who want to experience these beautiful spring wildflowers at their peak!

Please feel free to report any observations to Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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