Looking for wildflowers is one of my favorite spring activities, and a walk in the woods at this time of year is sure to reveal some special treats as new plants emerge from the forest floor. On a recent walk, I came upon a clump of trillium plants preparing to bloom.
They are easily recognized because they have three leaves and a stalk that rises from the junction of the leaves, which holds a single flower. The name trillium is derived from the Latin word tres, which means three. In addition to the three leaves, they have three petals and sepals (the bracts surrounding the petals). The flower parts also come in multiples of three.
There are more than 40 species of trillium native to North America and Asia, and four grow wild in Massachusetts: the red or purple, the large-flowered, the nodding and the painted trillium. Our local trilliums measure about 6- to 20-inches-tall and are usually found in moist woods.
The red trillium has many common names, which tell of its prominence in human use and folklore. "Wake-robin" comes from the fact it blooms in early spring, as the robins are returning. "Stinking Benjamin," "Stinking Willie" and "wet-dog trillium" are terms that give an indication of the foul smell it gives off (more on that later). It also has been called "Indian balm" and "birth root" because American Indians made an extract from the root that they used to control uterine bleeding and to aid in childbirth.
But there is more to the trillium than a collection of intriguing names. The smell that gave rise to some of those names resembles rotting flesh, which attracts carrion flies -- one of the plant's main pollinators. The color of the red trillium petals also resembles meat, so the combination is sure to draw in those important insects.
Not all species of trillium have such distinctive odors. The large-flowered trillium has a subtle, but pleasant fragrance. It and the nodding trillium have white petals. The painted trillium has white petals with crimson in the center of the flower, where the petals join. The petal color usually changes after pollination occurs. Those with white petals may turn pink, and the red trillium petals fade. Watch for this as the season progresses.
Pollinators are not the only insects that are attracted to these woodland jewels. Later in the season, after the flowers have been pollinated and the seeds form, ants play an important role in the trillium life cycle.
Each seed is surrounded by a fleshy structure, called elaiosome, which is rich in lipids and proteins. Some ant species are attracted to these appendages and, therefore, harvest the seeds, carrying them away from the parent plant and into their underground tunnels. After the ants eat the elaiosome, they discard the seeds, essentially dispersing and planting them at the same time. Both the ants and the trillium benefit from this wonderful example of a mutualistic relationship.
But the seeds don't come until later. At this time of year, it's the flowers we anticipate after the long winter, and it's not just we humans that wait for blossoms to occur. The plant --which is a perennial, coming up each year once it is established, -- does not bloom at all for the first several years. Depending on the species and conditions, it can take from four to 15 years for a trillium to produce its first flower, and at that, it only has one blossom each year. Some plants, however, can live to be up to 30 years old, if conditions remain favorable and they are not disturbed.
Because of this reproductive pattern, populations of trillium can be easily impacted by disturbance. People picking and digging up these plants have caused some species to become quite rare. As with all wild things, it is best to enjoy them in their native habitat.
However, if you are completely enamored with the trillium, Project Native in Great Barrington, Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge and New England Wildflower Society in Framingham give helpful information on how to grow wild plants.
Even though I have trillium in my wildflower garden, there's something special about stumbling upon them in the woods, so get out and enjoy this season of blooms.
If you go ...
What: Mother's Day with Wildflowers
When: Sunday, May 11, 11 a.m.
Where: Bartholomew's Cobble, Sheffield.
Information: (413) 229-86900, email@example.com
What: Wildflowers and Spring Changes.
When: Sunday, May 11, 10 a.m.-noon.
Where: Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox.
Information: (413) 637-0320, www.massaudubon,org
What: Mother's Day Wildflower Hike at Little Tom Mountain.
When: Sunday, May 11, 1-3 p.m.
Where: Tamarack Hollow, Windsor