Trilliums

Photo copyright Lauretta Jones

Trillium. The word rolls pleasantly off the tongue. Trilliums, not surprisingly, are named for their three petals and three leaves (“tri” = three). But a trillium has another trio: three structures that are not what they seem. This is where the non-botanist’s eyes widen. A trillium’s leaves are not really leaves. Part of its root is not a root and its stem is not quite a stem.

Those triangular green things that look like leaves are called “bracts”. They perform the same function for a trillium as do leaves for other plants: using the sun’s energy to turn carbon dioxide into food. Trillium’s actual leaves have evolved into coverings that surround its underground stem or “rhizome” (which one could be forgiven for mistaking for a root). Many plants reproduce from rhizomes, but my sources disagree on whether trilliums do so. Finally, the stem is called a “scape.” A scape is a type of stem that grows out of the ground and has no true leaves.

Many species of trillium grace North American woods. In our area are the Large White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and the red Wake-robin (Trillium erectum) are native. The flowers of the white trillium turn pink with age.

I know I sound like a broken record, but please never pick a trillium. The blossom will not last long at all, yet it will take many years for the plant to recover (if it does). To protect this spectacular native, New York and other states have made it illegal to pick trilliums on public land.

Trilliums have another characteristic that may strike you as unusual. They rely on ants to spread their seeds. The seeds have a nutritious fleshy structure (an elaiosome) that attracts the ants. They take the seeds to their nests, eat the elaiosome, and throw the seed onto their garbage piles. There, the trillium seeds sprout and soon… more trilliums for us to enjoy.

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