Aldona Bird, Contributors, Latest News

A lot to learn about trilliums

My family’s land has its share of autumn olives, multiflora roses and other non-natives. Alongside these often too common plants grow some native treasures, including ramps, native medicinals and trilliums.

Had you asked me a week ago about trilliums, I would likely have grimaced, and answered that the overpopulation of deer keep our woods clear of these spring ephemerals; they seem to have become considerably sparser than they were some thirty years ago.

A recent walk might have changed my mind, though. I didn’t see any trilliums blooming, but saw many plants with the classic triplet of leaves.

Driving down Route 7 to Morgantown I also noticed, for the first time, the hillside covered in trilliums.

These two observations, in combination with a comment about the complexity of the trillium lifecycle sent me down a research rabbit hole.

Trilliums, I learned, grow from rhizomes. Simple enough, right? Then I read that the stem, is technically not a stem but just an extension of the rhizome. I don’t understand the distinction — and this was not the only aspect of the trillium that I found confusing.

The three leaves we see, growing from the stalk are technically not leaves — they are bracts. Bracts are defined as supporting a flower. However in many species of trilliums the bracts grow lower on the stem (ahem, extension of the rhizome), and there are additional bracts right under the flower. An example is the white trillium I spotted along the roadside. Other trilliums have flowers that sit right atop their large bracts.

Trillium leaves are apparently more like tiny scales along the stem. I think I need to find a botanist to help me understand these distinctions, as my own research still left me confused.

The incredible complexity of the plant doesn’t end with its physical attributes. The life cycle is also unusual and complex.

After flowers are pollinated (by ants, beetles, bees, flies or other insects, depending on which species of trillium), ants or mice spread the seeds. Once the seeds germinate, they spend their first year just growing their roots.

The next season they send up thin leaves, and not until their third year do they grow the whorl of three leaves that is so recognizable. A plant can take up to seven years to flower. A trillium can live up to 25 years.

There are 39 species of trilliums native to North America and Asia, and they are members of the lily family.

Deer lower trillium populations when they browse on the plants too early in the plants’ lifecycle and thus kill them. Older plants have a better chance of surviving and growing again the next season).

Now that I’ve seen so many trilliums pop up in my woods and along Route 7, I wonder if there is some other cycle — weather, or soil condition — that also plays a part in when these beautiful flowers grow and bloom.

Some species of trilliums have some medicinal properties, and I read the leaves are edible. Personally, I wouldn’t bother harvesting these flowers either for food or medicine, as some species are endangered in some states, and my own property does not have an abundance of them.

On my recent stroll through the woods I saw other wildflowers, many not yet in bloom, which I look forward to in the coming months and years. Each time I visit the woods, I see something new or different — this beautiful ecosystem we live in is in constant flux and full of mysteries.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email