Lyn Chimera is a Master Gardener, consultant and lecturer.
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Trillium is one of the first spring natives to bloom and probably one of the most well-known native plants. Its beautiful image is used on many logos, advertisements, and artwork.
Trillium is one of the few plants that have the same common and botanical name. “Tri” means 3 and that is the key to identifying trillium. All of its parts are in 3’s or multiple of 3’s; leaves petals, sepals, stamens, stigmas, even the ovary has 3 compartments. There are over 45 varieties of trillium in the US, and 37 of those are native to the northeast.
Many people think that trillium is a bulb but it actually grows from a rhizome. Each year of growth is visible on the rhizome as a shrunken segment called a constriction, rather like rings in a tree, and can be used to approximate the age of the plant. The oldest one identified was over 70 years old! The rhizomes have specialized roots that pull the plant deeper into the ground. Each rhizome typically produces only one stem and flower however some mature ones can have two even three.
Seeds develop slowly taking 2 years to show above ground and up to 7-8 years to produce a flower and seed. This is one of the reasons they are so expensive to purchase and why illegal digging is such a big business. I have read that the trillium rhizomes available in pouches at big box stores are all dug illegally which is why they can be offered for such low prices. A nursery has to commit a lot of time and energy to produce a blooming trillium for sale. If you are purchasing a trillium ask where it was grown and stay away from inexpensive offerings.
Trillium are herbaceous perennials that grow in deciduous forests. They bloom in early May, just when the tree leaves are opening. Their 3 leaves grow horizontally out from the stem to capture the most light in the shaded forest.
If you have a moist deciduous shade area with a good layer of leaf mold they do well in home gardens. Since this is an endangered species in NYS it is illegal to dig from the wild. The 2 that are most common to find in nurseries are:
Trillium grandiflorum – the classic white variety that used to blanket our woods. The white blossom fades to a light pink which many mistakenly think is a different variety. They grow 8 to 16 inches tall and will spread through seeds. This variety prefers a moist, slightly acidic loamy soil.
Trillium erectum – purple trillium is also common in our woods but not near as frequent as the white. It also prefers moist slightly acidic soil with lots of leaf mold. Purple trillium is slightly shorter than the white variety, 6 to 12 inches.
One species I’m fond of but is a little harder to find is Trillium luteum. It has an upright yellow flower that does not open like the other trilliums mentioned. It also has showy mottled leaves which adds interest to the shade garden.
Trillium is endangered for a few reasons. Deer are the biggest problem as they find it extra yummy. People picking the flowers and digging from the woods as well as habitat loss are also causes. If you have the right conditions planting a few trillium will help preserve out native biodiversity. Give this amazing native plant a chance.