Trillium Trivia

A fellow Master Gardener, Candice, sent me a photo taken by her granddaughter of a fascinating member of the Trillium family. We have already discussed Trillium, but I had not included the Purple Trillium because I didn’t find any on the recent Smoky Mountain trip. Here is the photo and let’s examine it closely.

A Purple Trillium found on Mount Pisgah in North Carolina.

                Trilliums are closely related to the lilies. All have a thick underground stem, bearing a single aerial stem, which supports a whorl of three large leaves varying somewhat in size and shape in different species. Above the leaf whorl arises the lovely flower, with or without a stalk; erect or drooping; white, red, purple or pink striped, according to the species. The flower is also on the plan of three green sepals, three colored petals, six stamens in two rows and one pistil made up of three united carpels. The name trillium probably comes from the three leaves. The plant has a number of local names – wake robin, bath flower and “way down East;” the pink-striped or painted trilliums are called “wild pinies” – meaning peonies.

                The Purple Trillium (Trillium erectus) is a member of a closely allied grouping which includes the White Erect Trillium, the Red Trillium, and as shown above, the Purple Trillium. Botanists are tempted to consolidate all three-color variants into one species name as the similarities are compelling.  Members of the Erectum complex have flowers with the following commonalities: (1) petals that are coarse and stiff in texture (in contrast with the wavy edges of other species like the Great White Trillium), (2) petals that do not change color after pollination, (3) petals with prominent, netted veins, (4) fleshy stigmas that are attached to the ovary separately, without a common style, and (5) conspicuous, deeply-ridged ovaries. The photo above is a flower already pollinated as the stigma have turned from yellow to brownish gray. It will form a seed pod and gradually disappear in the coming weeks and, surprisingly, nothing else will grow for the entire year where it is now growing. Here are other cousins of the Purple Trillium.

T. Erectus (red variation) with petal, stem, and leaf detail. Note the baby Trilliums, Bracken Fern, Hepatica, and possibly Squirrel Corn at the base.

Aren’t wildflowers fascinating! Thank you, Candice!

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