Connecting Lake Simcoe's Community

The showy trillium is a springtime favourite

2019 05 21 trillium

By David Hawke -- A white-tailed deer had made its presence known by a series of nipped-off trillium stems, a seasonal reminder that the deer are always out there, always hungry. Aside from human bouquet-gatherers, trilliums usually don't have too much to worry about, other than a wandering doe.

          The white trillium is probably our best-known native wildflower, and no doubt one of the first to be memorized by school children over the last eight decades. In 1937, it was designated Ontario's provincial floral emblem, and the adoration of this spring wildflower has continued strongly ever since.

          Every hardwood forest seems to support at least a scattering of these large-blossomed beauties, with some forest floors being literally a blanket of white. Often sharing the rich loamy soil are bellwort, wild ginger, fawn lily, jack-in-the-pulpit, and spring beauty, all interesting but none as showy as the big trilliums.

          The reason for this "look at me" attitude is that trilliums need to be pollinated by insects rather than the wind. Once the overhead tree leaves burst open and the forest floor becomes shaded, flying insects drop off in number. If the white billboard blossoms haven't attracted a pollinator by then, it may be a wasted year as far as blossom production is concerned.

          However, if pollinated successfully and seeds are produced, the trillium still requires insect assistance to complete its reproductive cycle. The distribution of those precious seeds depends on a nearby colony of hungry ants. In a process called myrmecochory (try that on your next spelling bee) ants collect and carry away the ripened seeds.

          The seeds are covered in a protein-rich coating, a delight to the taste buds of the ants. Once the seed's surface has been cleaned off, it is discarded into a garbage chamber within the ant's underground nest. Now the seeds can germinate and grow forth next year, creating a new clump of stems as they compete with each other for sunlight.

          One of the fun things about trilliums is that there are four species that can be found, with a bit of searching, in our immediate area, and a fifth species that grows elsewhere in the province. In order of blooming dates, we have white, red, painted and nodding. The very rare drooping trillium is found only around London and Windsor, in rich Carolinian-type woods. The drooping trillium was once thought to be extirpated from Ontario, but a few were re-discovered in the 1990s; that species is now listed as a Species at Risk.

          A couple of misconceptions regarding white and red trilliums continues to surface every year, in regards to their colouration. Or better stated, their changing colouration. As white trilliums age their white petals turn pink. So no, they don't change species... just colour. "Pink trilliums" are just white trilliums, only older.

          Although not as common in their colour shifts, red trilliums occasionally grow with a mysterious lack of pigmentation in their petals, thus producing a pale yellow blossom. Again, not a new or separate species, just a fun find on a walk through the woods.

          Painted trilliums are one of my favorite wildflowers, as they have the added tinge of a rose-coloured circle within their delicate white petals. Growing singularly and scattered, the discovery of a painted trillium is a special find; close scrutiny of the nearby area may produce a few more plants.

          The leaves of any trillium are great solar collectors: broad, flat and with a short stem. Energy from sunlight is created here and then stored in the root, a process that may go for as many as eight years before the root has enough proteins to produce a flower bud. So, when you pick a trillium for a bouquet, you are wiping out at least eight years of botanical work.

          If you really, really have to pick a trillium, then do so only above the leaves. That way the plant can continue collecting solar energy and will hopefully produce another blossom next year. If you pick the whole plant, leaves included, you have killed the plant.

          Other than the aforementioned drooping trillium, these three-petaled wildflowers do not have any legal protections. Yes, the white trillium is our provincial floral emblem, but just as the white pine is our provincial tree, you don't go to jail for removing one from the woodlot. However, picking trilliums (or anything for that matter) in a provincial park is a major no-no, in fact illegal. Take lots of pictures and leave the blossoms for the next visitor to enjoy as well.

David’s notebook: The wee teensy bit of heat that we received was just enough to get the blackflies going. But it also brought on a few blooms and an influx of migrating birds. Now should be prime birdwatching for colourful warblers.

© 2019 David J. Hawke

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