An Inside Look at Trillium in Spring

It is time to check on the Trillium, those beautiful lilies, Trillium albidum. Last year, there were hundreds of them blooming in the two oak woodlands in our valley, and with the extra rains we got, they seemed to thrive. This year I am sure the lack of rain will have an impact on their population, especially since it did not rain at all in February. The air is moist this week, and we have some rain in the forecast, thank goodness!

As I approach the area we call the Lusher woodland, I see that it is covered in vibrant shades of green with sprouting grass, cow parsnip, milkmaids, and meadow rue. Then I see them, some clusters of white trilliums. There are not as many as last year but there are certainly plenty to enjoy.

This trillium is also known as Giant wakerobin or White toadshade and is endemic to the western United States. It grows from a rhizome, an underground creeping root stalk or horizontal plant stem capable of producing the shoot and root systems of a new plant. I think about my Alstroemerias which have become a creeping problem in my home flower garden as they are able to move about from one garden bed to another, either from seeds or a piece of rhizome. It is a very successful reproductive strategy! Trillium populations are highly adaptable as there are 38 species of trilliums in North America with the majority of these found on the east coast.

The leaf-like structures that surround the flower are not leaves, but bracts. 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 the flower. Sometimes these bracts are mottled with maroon or brownish spots. Despite their morphological origins, the bracts have external and internal structures similar to a leaf and also function in photosynthesis. Most non-botanists refer to them as leaves.

These lovely flowers are divided into threes, three white to pink petals and three pale green sepals. Their stamens, or the pollen producing male part, are in a group of six. Their stigmas, the ovary and seed producing part, are in a group of three. If you look closely you can identify all these parts in the photos.

As I walk around looking at each group or individual trillium closely, I see subtle differences in petal shape, color, and stages. Some stamens appear larger and covered with more pollen than others. It is a whole world inside each flower with communities of spiders, small wasps, and even ants interacting with their environment. The crisp scent emanating off these brilliant flowers reminds me of a fresh spring day.

These lovely white flowers are just the balm needed to soothe the spirit during this strange and sometimes stressful time. Spring is here to remind us that time goes on, nature is all around, and to take time to appreciate and enjoy it.