Once the monochrome icy white and dull brown have faded into the hazing greens of spring, it’s time to start looking for flowers. The first ones to bloom are called Spring Ephemerals; they grow, bloom and then set seeds before the leafy canopy has filled out, blocking off the light.
One of our ephemerals is the Great White Trillium (Trillium Grandiflorum). Though it has quite a range – in the Midwest, it can be found in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio – it’s generally seen only in upland forests. It’s fond of moist soil in shady areas, and is often seen near maple and beech trees. In fact, Wisconsin Forestry Management uses the Trillium as an indicator plant, since it routinely grows near trees they might want to manage, or manage for.
They bloom in early spring (though not as early spring as the Snow Trillium, Trillium Nivale – that blooms in early April, sometimes before the last snowfall – brrr!); in 2014, the Great Whites didn’t start blooming until the second half of May!
So what is a Trillium? It’s an herbaceous, rather than woody, plant. (That means it doesn’t have bark, the stem stays fairly thin even if the plant grows really tall and once the growing season is done, everything above the ground dies.) And that trio of of greenery on the stem aren’t properly leaves; they’re called bracts; leaflike growths associated with the flower. It is a very, very white flower, though people have been fooled into thinking there’s another variety of Trillium since the white flower turns pink just before it wilts!
Trillium is a flower of threes; three bracts, three sepals (the green spikes just under the flower), three petals to each pretty white flower, and two groups of three stamens.
The white-tailed deer love the trillium, too; though they favor its flavor, not its appearance! The Trillium is listed in some places as being potentially vulnerable, in part because of over-grazing by deer.
It can be cultivated in woodland gardens, and there are some doubled forms of the flower that are extremely popular. They can be hard to establish – they’re very particular about their soil and growing conditions. But once you have them started, they grow well, and for a fairly long time; according to T. M. Knight in the American Midland Naturalist, the plants take about seventeen years to come to full maturity and can live for up to seventy!
The trillium also has medicinal uses! The root is antiseptic and antispasmodic, as well as being a diuretic and can be grated up into a poultice for the eye to reduce swelling. The poultice can also be used to soothe aching rheumatic joints. When boiled in milk, the roots create a solution that is used to cure diarrhea or dysentery. The root bark can be made into drops that treat earache. The leaves, when boiled in lard, can be applied to ulcers in a poultice to prevent gangrene. The leaves can also be boiled and eaten as a substitute for spinach. How about that, for a small spring-flowering plant?
Now, if you want to go on a trillium hunt, first of all it has to be in early spring if you want to catch them flowering. Start making plans when the snow starts melting. Your best ally is going to be the local Department of Natural Resources office. They will know when the plants are likely to start flowering, and where. (The really good representatives of the DNR will even remember that you called, and when the flowers start, they’ll call you to be sure you know!) Below are some names and links to get you started!