Trillium (Trillium spp.), By Emily Ehley
( Trillium erectum, pictured)
Georgia O’Keeffe, who painted flowers that were more than flowers- and landscapes that breathed life, once wrote, “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.”
If you are in the woods of Western North Carolina this time of year, there is a good chance you will see a trillium, a member of the lily family. There are many species of the trillium genus here in the Southern Appalachians, and many can be differentiated only by experts and life-long naturalists. To spot that a trillium is a trillium, however, takes no extensive study. Each trillium is distinctive and eye-catching, occupying its place in space and time with a kind of spreading dignity. The trillium does not have any true above-ground leaves. The three green parts below the flower are called bracts, and they always come in threes, thus the “tri” in the name. The petals are also in threes. The petals vary in shape and color depending on the species, but it is the division of threes is the underlying similarity between them all.
Within this genus, there are at fifteen species of trillium that have so far been identified by scientists as native to North Carolina, some of which are threatened or endangered. The common names of the various species are vivid and poetic: “wake robin,” “yellow mottled,” “toad shade,” “lemon scented,” “bloody noses,” “confused.”
Trilliums appear along wooded paths this time of year because they are what is known as “spring ephemerals.” Spring ephemerals are wildflowers that grow in the shaded understory of the woods, blooming only when the perfect temperature, moisture, and light conditions converge on the patch of soil under which they lie dormant. To find a trillium in the woods on a spring afternoon is like running into a friend you hadn’t realized how much you missed. It greets you with its bright face and open hands and invites you to get closer and take in everything that it has to say about the forest.
In an unbroken system, the emergence and blooming of flowers creates a kind of calendar that marks the inexorable progression of the seasons. The study of these patterns is known as “phenology.” Changes in these occurrences over time are an indicator that the system itself is changing. Even a slight fluctuation in the temperature, moisture, and light conditions can cause spring ephemerals to emerge and bloom at an entirely different time than expected, or not at all. As time goes by, we in this region may realize too late that they are gone entirely, and that we never really saw the friend we had in the nodding trillium blooms.
At Wild South, we work with our partners to protect these wild woods where you can’t help but stumble on these amazing wildflowers. They are a gorgeous reminder of our mountain heritage and we want to keep trillium growing strong! Get outside TODAY and observe (but never pick) the wild blooming trilliums while you can. It’s definitely worth it. What are your favorite Trillium varieties?