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By Lyn Chimera

The sight of trillium blooming in the woods is a real sign of spring. It is such a beautiful flower that it is often used on the cover of books or in articles about native plants and wildflowers. Trillium is the official flower of the province of Ontario and the state flower of Ohio.

I was recently given a very rare green trillium and decided to do some research on the plant. What a surprise I had discovering interesting facts about trillium in general and the green trillium in particular.

Trillium is both the common and botanical name. The name Trillium comes from “tri,” meaning three. Its parts are arranged in threes or multiples of three– three leaves, three sepals, three petals, six stamens, three stigmas. Even the ovary has three compartments. For this reason, sometimes it is referred to as the Trinity Flower.

Trillium are native to temperate forests in North America and parts of Asia. The genus “Trillium” has 49 species, 39 of them in the U.S. This herbaceous perennial grows from rhizomes in deciduous forests. It blooms in May while the tree leaves are opening, but needs the early spring sunlight before the trees leaf out to do well. Their leaves grow parallel to the ground so they can absorb as much sunlight as possible. An interesting things about the rhizome is that it has “rings” at the end so you can actually count them to see how old a trillium is. Some can live 25 to 60 years!

Perhaps they live so long because it takes them a long time to reach maturity. A trillium seed can take two years just to mature enough to break through the soil with a single leaf and up to seven years to flower. This is one reason that trillium are so expensive to buy from reputable growers who are propagating from seed, and also why digging them from the wild to sell is still continuing, though illegal. Always ask where the trillium was propagated before buying. I was at a presentation where the person said the packaged ones you see in big box stores for $7 are all likely illegally dug. A nursery simply can’t afford to spend seven years tending seedlings and sell them for such a little amount.

Trillium are declining at an alarming rate. When I was a child, the woods were full of them. We had a place in the country and always picked a bouquet for Mother’s Day. Now it’s difficult to find many at all. One reason is that if the flower and leaves are picked or munched by deer, chances are the rhizome will die. They are a favorite of deer and that, in combination with illegal harvesting, has decimated the populations.

Some of the most common trillium in our area are trillium grandiflorum (the classic white), trillium erectum (red), and trillium luteum (yellow). The white trillium turns pink as it fades. Many people think it’s a different variety but it’s not. The rare green trillium is caused by a mycoplasma (microorganism infecting the plant) that causes the white trillium to convert all its reproductive parts to green petals. This plant doesn’t produce seeds but can reproduce through rhizome growth.

There are so many more interesting facts about trillium like their history, use as an herb, and common names but this article would take up the whole magazine!

A great book for information on wildflowers is Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast, A Natural History, by Carol Gracie. It has extensive information on each plant and the pictures are amazing. Another good book on natives is Native Plants of the Northeast by Don Leopold.