by Tony Avent
illustration by Ippy Patterson
I don’t remember exactly when or why I became enamored with trilliums, but it was certainly at an early stage of my planthood…I mean, childhood. There always seemed to be something magical about these native spring ephemeral woodland perennials.
The published material I read as a child talked about their rarity and difficulty in cultivation, which I would later discover is mostly mythical. My first opportunity to encounter trillium in the wild was as a teen, when I accompanied the late Raleigh wildflower specialist Margaret Reid on her legendary, just-ahead-of-the-bulldozer wildflower rescues. She was saving them from demolition because even by the early 1970s, patches of trilliums in the region were being replaced by malls and apartment buildings at an alarming rate. (Incidentally, Raleigh is only home to only two trillium species, the upland Trillium catesbiae, and the rarer, swamp-dwelling Trillium pusillum.)
So, what exactly are trilliums? Like hostas, trilliums are former members of the ginormous lily family. Recent DNA work sent trilliums, hostas, and many other members of the former lily family scurrying for a new clan. Even now, trilliums are being bounced around between several proposed new families, an ongoing DNA tug-of-war.
Taxonomy aside, trilliums are named for their three leaves, which sit below a three-petal flower and atop a short stalk, usually less than one foot tall. They are spring ephemerals, meaning they emerge in spring, flower, set seed, and then go dormant before the dog days of summer arrive.
Trilliums are divided into two basic groups, the northern-growing, mostly pedicellate, green-leaved species and the southern-growing, mostly sessile, patterned-leaved species. Although these terms sound fancy, pedicellate only means there is a short stalk between the leaves and the flower, and in sessile trilliums, this stalk is missing. It’s not unlike the difference between people who have a neck between their head and shoulders, and those football players whose heads appear to sit right on their shoulders.
The first Deep South trillium I grew was Trillium foetidissimum, or Foetid Toadshade, shared with me by former orchid nurseryman Mark Rose, from a collection near Baton Rouge. I have since had the opportunity to study the diversity of Trillium foetidissimum throughout its entire range in Louisiana.
Prized for their foliage, Trillium foetidissimum and other sessile trilliums have beautifully camouflaged leaves that look like they were designed as props for the set of Duck Dynasty. Each leaf is pewtery-green, highlighted by muted purple spots and blotches. When the flowers finally open in late February, the petals are a lovely dark purple. In appearance, Trillium foetidissimum may appear similar to later-emerging I-40 Piedmont native, Trillium cuneatum.
I should mention the root of the name. Trillium foetidissimum is foetid. Indeed, if you stick your nose into the flower on a warm day, you can detect a distinctive wet dog smell, but trust me, it’s not something that you’ll otherwise notice.
In the garden, Trillium foetidissimum has proven to be one of the easiest and most prolific trillium species we grow. While most trillium species take seven years to flower from seed, Trillium foetidissimum will reliably flower for us in four years after the seed are sown. Trillium foetidissimum also clumps up very well in the garden, and after a few years, they are divisible, allowing you to share with friends or spread around the garden. But be sure to mark your trilliums with a tag or rock, so you don’t oops…dig into the clump while it’s dormant.