Nature News: Wildflower Trillium is starting to bloom

published May 20, 2020, the York Weekly, York County Coast Star, Portsmouth Herald and Foster’s Daily

One of the ways I have been dealing with staying at home is getting to know my backyard better through a daily ‘nature minute’ where I find something in my backyard, flora or fauna (though usually flora because plants don’t move) to do a short video about (you can find these at @pikeshikes).  I’ve gone through most of the obvious candidates; dandelions, unusual spring wildflowers, my first animal-a gray tree frog.  We have trillium starting to bloom along the bank that goes down to the river.  I can’t believe I thought this, but when I saw them I thought “why discuss trillium, everyone knows what they are, they probably have a boring backstory”.  What bothers me most about this is that I thought they might be boring. One of my guiding tenets is that nothing is boring unless you choose to be bored.  My other main tenet is that nature is awesome and wonderful.  So, I decided to read up on trillium.

Trillium are, indeed, a well-known wildflower.  As a spring ephemeral I would bet they are second only to lady’s slippers.   First, the name.  All trilliums are in the genus Trillium, which according to Merriam-Webster comes from New Latin and is an alteration of the Swedish word ‘trilling’ which means triplet.  This refers to the three parts of the flower, the three sepals directly behind the petals as well as three “leaves” which, technically, aren’t true leaves.  Those 3 big green things are a type of modified leaf known as a bract.  According to the US Forest Service “ Morphologically, trillium plants produce no true leaves or stems above ground. The “stem” is just an extension of the horizontal rhizome and produces tiny, scale-like leaves (cataphylls). The above-ground plant is technically a flowering scape, and the leaf-like structures are bracts subtending (underlying) the flower. Despite their morphological origins, the bracts have external and internal structure like a leaf, function in photosynthesis, and most authors refer to them as leaves.”

Since trillium are part of my backyard biodiversity study it made me inordinately happy to learn that the eastern United States has the highest trillium biodiversity in the world.  Of the forty three species of trillium (that we know of) found world-wide, thirty eight are found in North America! Four of these are native to New England: Trillium cernuum (whip-poor-will flower or nodding trillium), T. erectum (red trillium or stinking Benjamin), T. grandiflorum (great white trillium), and T. undulatum (painted trillium).  Other colorful common names for the trillium are wakerobin because they bloom with the first robins,  toadshade and birthroot due to traditional use during childbirth.

After taking a closer look at the trillium at my house I realized I have two different species, what I thought was just a big wilted one turned out to be nodding trillium, the white flower dangles, hidden, under the big, floppy, leaves.  Nodding trillium has the northernmost distribution of any of the North American trilliums.  Painted trillium have a more classic trillium look, flowers held above the bracts and easy to see.  One confusing thing about painted trillium is that their white flowers with a reddish or purplish blotch at the base can turn pink following pollination.  I only have three of these in flower, but can’t wait to see what happens.  

A friend just sent me a photo of a third native-red trillium.  I wish I had these at my house.  In addition to their colorful reddish flowers they attract pollinators in an unusual way.  They produce no nectar instead relying upon a fetid, rotten-meat smell that attracts flies (hence the common name stinking Benjamin). 

I know that I have a bit of a bias against big, showy, famous wildflowers-I tend to be drawn to the hidden, the not-so-obvious bits of nature that can take some effort to find.  But, after exploring the backstory of the trillium in my backyard I have a whole new appreciation of who they are.  As with everything in nature the more you learn the more you realize how little you know.  

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