Painted trillium fruit (photo: Macphail Woods)

Trillium time

Trillium time

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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With the rush of growth in woodlands during June and July, trilliums are popping up all over the place. These woodland wildflowers are quite easy to identify. Everything about them seems to reinforce the “tri” part of their name. From a single stem, they rise up between 8–12” and have three leaves and three flower petals.

Both species are generally associated with deciduous trees and shrubs and are easy to tell apart. The flower of the nodding trillium, as you might expect, hangs below the leaves, and is pale white. The painted trillium flower grows above the leaves. It is white with a purple centre, as though someone had hand-painted the colour onto the flower.

While I have no explanation for it, I often find trilliums to be rare in woodlands where I expect to find them, and abundant in areas where I do not expect them to be. I was recently in Bear River and found thousands of nodding trilliums covering a large section of the forest floor. It was a relatively young woodland, with damp soil, and they were the dominant ground cover. It was a gorgeous sight.

Trilliums flower in May and June, though in cold springs you can often see them blooming well into July. Yet they are beautiful throughout the growing seasons. In May, the plants spring up and seem to unfold their leaves before your eyes. Then a beautiful flower appears, and the whole plant is in its glory.

But it gets better, as the flowers of turn into fruits. The nodding trillium has a ribbed, red-to-purple hanging fruit, while the fruit of the painted trillium is smooth and brilliant red, standing out for all to see. When I collect seed in the fall, it appears as though someone has decorated the forest floor with beautiful red and purple fruits.

When collecting, I try to never take large numbers of seeds from any one area. In general, conservation guidelines advise taking no more than 10% of the available seeds in an area, but 5% is probably a safer number.

Trilliums are a relatively easy plant to grow, as long as you are patient—they can take up to six years or longer to flower. Shallowly plant the seed in a garden bed and mulch with leaf mould or compost. The first year a small root grows and in the second year a tiny leaf will give you a sign that things are happening. You can transplant during the third spring, being careful to dig deep and not disturb the roots. They should be planted out in suitable habitat, preferably rich woodlands with moist soil.

There is a chance that another member of this family—the purple trillium (Trillium erectum)—is here, but we have no confirmed records. If you see a trillium with dark purple or maroon petals, please make careful notes of the location and give me a call at 902-651-2575. There is mention of this species in one of the Lone Pine books on wildflowers of Ontario. They say that it once was here but can no longer be found. In addition, Blythe Hurst Sr.’s slim 1933 publication on Flowering Plants and Ferns of Prince Edward Island lists it as the first of three native trilliums. With its brilliant colouring, it would be hard to confuse it with something else, but mistakes do happen.

While I am totally happy to have two beautiful species of trilliums here, a third would just be icing on the cake.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.