Don’t Pick The Trillium Flower and Other Trillium Myths

Robert Pavlis

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.

Don't Pick The Trillium Flower and Other Trillium Myths. Photo of Trillium grandiflorum
Don’t Pick The Trillium Flower and Other Trillium Myths. Photo of Trillium grandiflorum

Trillium Species

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.

Compost Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

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.

Pedicel between the flower and leaves is short
Pedicel between the flower and leaves is short

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.

Building Natural Ponds book, by Robert Pavlis

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

Trillium grandiflorum seed starting to germinate, photo by BotanyCa
Trillium grandiflorum seed starting to germinate, photo by BotanyCa

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.

Trillium-grandiflorum-f.-roseum, photo by BotanyCa
Trillium grandiflorum f. roseum, photo by 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.

Trillium-grandiflorum-green-variant2, photo by BotanyCa
Trillium grandiflorum green variant2, photo by BotanyCa

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.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

12 thoughts on “Don’t Pick The Trillium Flower and Other Trillium Myths”

  1. Trillium are beautiful, but they are invasive and crowding out my small garden flowers! Please advise me how to get rid of them other than digging them up! I’ve already tried that! They were planted by my well intending husband and they have exploded. Than you!

    Reply
    • They are not trillium. trillium spread very slowly and won’t over take other plants. Simply pulling off the leaves will slowly kill them.

      Reply
    • I am no legal expert, but according to the link, this is a proposed bull that in 2009 got first reading, but has not received Royal Assent. If that is correct, it is not a current law, and since it is now 2020, I doubt it will become one.

      Thanks for posting this.

      Reply
  2. You called a trillium “the prettiest weed I know.” What is your definition of a weed? My definition is “any plant growing where I don’t want it.” In my backyard, dandelions and wild violets are NOT weeds. In my veggie garden, they are. Polygonatum is not a weed on the dry shady slope in the backyard. When they start to send rhizomes out into the clover lawn, they are….

    Reply
      • I loved the piece but was surprised that you called it a weed, normally a term for a plant to destroy. That said, a lot of important native beauties that are often important host plants are called _____weed. I think it would be fun to rename all these natives sexy nursery names to make them more attractive to buy and plant. I love how “alternate-leaved dogwood became the magnificent “Pagoda Dogwood”. I am not a “purist” native gardener, but have seen amazing results by “mixing-in the natives”.

        Reply
  3. Thanks Robert. I have noticed some crimson trillium. I did transplant a couple into my garden area. They did bloom the next year.

    Reply
  4. You didn’t mentioned that there is also a dark reddish brown trillium. I used to have it in my garden for few years then it disappeared . still hoping it will come up again.

    Reply

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