The trillium is one of the main harbingers of spring, at least here in Ontario. It is not the earliest ephemeral to flower, but it is the most spectacular and if you find the right location, a deciduous forest without a lot of visitors, the ground is covered with them. It’s the prettiest weed I know.
It is an odd plant. Takes forever to grow big enough to bloom and is mostly distributed by ants. It blooms white but then fades to a light pink. If you transplant one in flower, it could take years before it flowers again. This is one plant that is best left alone.
Many people think that it’s illegal to pick, probably because it is the Ontario flower. Why would it not be protected? This and several other myths about trillium need some attention.
Mention the word trillium around here and everyone thinks of the large white one. But there are over 40 species worldwide with about 30 native to North America and the rest from Asia. Common names include wakerobin, tri-flower, birthroot, and birthwort, but to be honest I have never heard anyone use these terms.
Most of the comments below apply to Trillium grandiflorum, the big white one.
If You Pick a Trillium it Dies
Maybe, but it’s unlikely.
Picking the flower does not harm the plant. In fact, it prevents the plant from making seed, which allows it to spend more of its food reserves on enlarging the rhizome. It should actually flower better next year.
Picking the green leaves will harm the plant. Trilliums have a narrow window in which to make food before the tree canopy fills in, and they only have three leaves. Just like any other bulb, if you remove the leaves, it can’t make food, and the plant suffers. If the rhizome is very small it might die, but it usually just skips flowering for a couple of years until it builds up its reserves.
The problem with picking trillium is that the peticel, the stem between the flower and leaves is quite short. If you want to pick the flower so that you can easily hold it, you will probably pick it below the leaves and then you are damaging the plant.
It is Illegal to Pick a Trillium
Maybe. Laws are local, so any general statement like this is going to be untrue in at least some places.
In Ontario, it is not illegal to pick T. grandilforum, even though many think it is. You don’t have the right to trespass onto other peoples property, but if they give you permission, you can remove their plants. It is illegal to remove them from government properties like provincial parks.
The drooping trillium, Trillium flexipes, is protected by the Ontario Endangered Species Act, so it can’t be collected.
Michigan is routinely named as being a place where it is illegal to pick trilliums. This was true in the past, but is no longer true for most species. However, some species are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Know the laws of your location.
Trillium Take Seven Years to Flower From Seed
Trillium are slow growers, but if done right, you can have them flower in 4 years from seed collection.
Trillium Needs Two Years to Germinate
It is common to see a statement like this, “trillium seeds have a double dormancy, meaning they normally take at least two years to fully germinate.”
I have discussed double dormancy before and I am not convinced it actually exists. It definitely does not exist in trillium if the seeds are handled properly.
Fresh trillium seed will have some germination the same summer it is collected, but it spends the first winter underground, only making a leaf the following spring. Most of the remaining un-germinated seed will germinate the spring after collection, but they won’t make their first leaf until the second year after collection.
Some of the confusion here stems from the fact that people sow seed directly in soil and measure germination based on when they see leaves. In trillium, germination happens a year before a leaf shows. This is one reason I like my baggy method for seed germination – it lets me see what is really going on.
Germination is higher if trillium seed is picked a bit immature – it is better not to wait until it is fully ripe.
It is also critical that trillium seed is stored moist, which you can purchase at BotanyCa.
The Pink Trillium Exists
T. grandiflorum normally blooms white and as it ages the petals turn a pink color. So do pink grandiflorum exist? Yes they do.
There is a pink form called T. grandiflorum f. roseum. It opens pink and stays pink as it ages. This form is rare in most locations and the only way to find it is to go out when the trillium has just opened its flowers. It is quite visible in a sea of white.
Green Striped Trillium Has a Virus
Trillium flowers can exhibit a variety of green striping. I’ve seen it in both T. grandiflorum and T. erectum.
For years it was thought that these trillium are infected with a virus. Some more recent DNA research shows that it is infected with Phytoplasma, an obligate bacterial parasite.
The infection can spread to healthy plants. Infected plants seem to die after a few years.
The Trillium is Ontario’s Floral Emblem
Not quite – it is only the white trillium, T. grandiflorum, that is the Ontario floral emblem.
It was adopted in 1937 and grew out of a desire during World War I to select an official flower to plant on graves of Canadian servicemen.