Trillium wildflowers are a sight to behold not only in their native habitat but also in the garden. Native to temperate regions of North America and Asia, these early spring-bloomers are easily recognized by their whorl of three leaves and showy flowers.
In fact, the name itself derives from the fact that nearly all parts of the plant come in threes – three leaves, three flower petals, three blooming characteristics (upright, nodding, or drooping) and three-sectioned seedpods.
Another interesting name for this plant includes wake robin, which is said to be for the timing of its flowering, which usually appears with the arrival of spring robins.
Types of Wildflower Trillium
With well over 40 trillium species, flower color varies anywhere from white, yellow and pink to red, maroon, and nearly purple. Some of the most common varieties grown include:
- White trillium (T. grandiflorum) – This type has nodding white flowers that age into bright pink blooms atop wavy, dark green leaves.
- Toadshade trillium (T. sessile) – This species exhibits red or purplish upright flowers surrounded by maroon and green mottled leaves.
- Yellow trillium (T. luteum) – This variety displays upright gold or bronze-green flowers on variegated green leaves and emits a sweet citrus-like scent.
- Purple or red trillium (T. erectum) – Also known as stinking Benjamin, this one has attractive, nearly purple flowers that smell of rotting meat.
Growing Trillium Plants
Trilliums bloom early and become dormant by midsummer, yet with suitable growing conditions they are easy to care for and long-lived in the garden. In order for them to thrive in the home garden, you must mimic their native habitat by providing moist, well-draining soil enriched with organic matter.
These perennial wildflowers are ideal for shade gardens and wooded wildflower gardens. They make excellent companions for similar woodland wonders like crested iris, jack-in-the-pulpit, hosta, toad lily, and ferns.
How to Plant a Trillium Wildflower
Trilliums do not transplant well from the wild and many are actually endangered; therefore, they should be purchased from a reputable nursery that specializes in their care. They can also be propagated from seed, though flowering will not occur right away. In fact, it can take up to four or five years to see blooms.
Collect seeds in late June or early July when the seedpod has turned from white to russet brown. Sow the seeds immediately, or store them in damp peat moss and refrigerate until ready for planting in a shady outdoor seedbed. The area should be enriched with plenty of humus, or compost, and kept evenly moist throughout the growing season. Seeds will not germinate until the second year.
Trillium plants can also be propagated by rhizome cuttings or division when the plant is dormant, either in fall or late winter (prior to new growth). Cover the tuber-like rhizome with at least two inches (5 cm.) of soil and space plants about ten inches (25 cm.) apart.
Care for Trillium Flowers
Once established in the garden, trillium wildflowers require little maintenance or care. As long as they have been planted in a suitable location, you need only keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy. They may also require water in dry weather.
Fertilizer is not necessary as long as they have plenty of organic material or compost mixed into the soil. You can, however, renew this each year if desired.
How to Grow a Trillium Garden
Appreciated for their attractive symmetry, Trillium (Trillium spp.) plants offer three-leafed foliage with matching three-petaled flowers in winter and early spring. Each trillium species has various flower colors, from white to red, but retains the same common nickname of trinity flower. Preferring the cooler U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9, these perennials are easily cultivated in home gardens with adequate shading. Whether grown from seed or division, trillium plants light up the garden with dark green foliage and brilliant flower colors.
Choose a dappled sunlit area for your trillium garden. Till this shady garden area down to 6 inches deep with a hand trowel to aerate the soil.
Water the newly tilled soil with a watering can. Observe the soil's drainage abilities, as trilliums need well-drained soil for proper growth. Amend the soil with sand-based materials if the area drains poorly.
Test the garden's pH level with a soil acidity test kit. Amend the garden as needed with lime or sulfur, based on the test kit's reading. Avoid alkaline conditions above a 7.3 reading on the kit trilliums prefer a neutral or acidic environment.
Plant when the trillium is dormant, during the end of summer and into autumn. Place a trillium plant division or seed into the tilled garden. Lightly cover with soil.
Sprinkle organic mulch across the trillium garden to retain moisture and protect the new planting.
Water the trillium periodically to maintain the moist soil conditions. Your plant division should begin to grow upward and horizontally when winter and spring arrive.
- Growing trillium from seed takes up to 9 years to see any flowering. Use plant divisions for faster cultivation and spreading throughout your garden. Underground rhizomes help the trillium spread throughout your garden without need to constantly replant divisions or seeds.
- Do not try to plant trillium in direct sunlight. The foliage takes on a burnt appearance and becomes stunted from the heat stress. In addition, avoid completely shady areas since photosynthesis becomes stifled and flowering suffers as a result.
Writing professionally since 2010, Amy Rodriguez cultivates successful cacti, succulents, bulbs, carnivorous plants and orchids at home. With an electronics degree and more than 10 years of experience, she applies her love of gadgets to the gardening world as she continues her education through college classes and gardening activities.
Previously known as:
Trilliums are a native North American wildflower in the lily family of which there are 38 species. In NC they are found in the mountains with a few in the coastal and Piedmont areas. The flowers all have 3 petals and 3 bracts of various colors and the bracts are often mottled.
Strictly speaking, trilliums have no above-ground stems or leaves. The stem is an extension of the underground rhizome and the leaves are the bracts of the flower. The flowers can be held above the bracts or be found hiding under them. There are 2 major groups of Trilliums- those with the flower held above the bracts on a stem and those without stems or sessile. Flowers can be large and showy or small in size.
They prefer rich, loamy or humusy soils with good drainage and neutral pH for the most part in partial to full shade. Avoid afternoon sun and provide moisture during the growing season but drier when dormant.
Use these plants in the shade garden for spring color, under trees or a woodland site. They are slow to spread but long-lived.
Trillium seedlings take 2 or 3 years to develop their characteristic three-leaf structure, so if you see long, thin leaves poking out of the soil around your trillium, don't pull them out! It may take 7 or more years for a trillium to grow from seed to a mature, blooming plant. Cheap trilliums are almost always poached from the wild--purchase plants only from reputable dealers! Seeds are dispersed by ants and ground-nesting wasps, such as Yellow Jackets. Deer love to eat Trilliums.
Insects, Diseases, and Other Plant Problems: No serious problems. Slugs and snails are occasional pests and leaf spot, rust and smut are occasional disease problems. It does not transplant well.Trillium Form Jim Robbins CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Close up of flower T. grandiflorum James St. John CC BY 2.0 Mottled bracts and sessile flowers Paul VanDerWerf T. erectum flower Rolf Engstrand CC BY-SA 3.0 Sessile species (stemless) Fritzflohrreynolds CC BY-SA 3.0 T. grandiflorum flowers James St.John T. lancifolium 'Shotgun Wedding' flower, Wake County, NC Cathy Dewitt CC BY 4.0
2 becomes 200: how to divide trillium
I DON’T RECALL HOW I FOUND THEM—maybe it was while fixing something, or painting the house all those years ago. But for some reason I was down at ground level, peering under the floor of the front porch, and there they were, in near-darkness: two tiny trillium plants. I rescued them, and you know how it goes when a plant thanks you for your help: Now I have hundreds, thanks to those first two, and to a tip handed down from a great gardener about dividing them when they’re in flower. Yes, like right now.
The books, and most experts, will recommend you wait until around fall, but sometimes trilliums and other ephemerals aren’t so easy to find by then as they are in spring, in their flowering glory (above). This little “aha” was imparted to me and Ken Druse by Evelyn Adams of Wellesley, Massachusetts, when we visited her garden awash in trilliums one spring, working on Ken’s 1994 book “The Natural Habitat Garden.”
“How did you get so many?” Ken asked the elderly Adams, and it was simple, she said: She dug them up and separated them when they were in flower—you know, when you can see just where they all are, since none have gone dormant.
The instruction made such an impression that Ken and I have both been doing it this way—not waiting till late summer or fall—for years. (Wild plants must never be dug for this or any purpose. Commercially, trillium are ethically propagated by seed.) Since their rhizomes are barely below the soil surface, you hardly have to dig very deep to find the mass of tangled roots and rhizomes.
Each division from your garden needs to have at least an eye or growing point, but neither of us cuts them up into tiny bits—in fact, I just gently tease apart the clumps descended from those two native Trillium erectum, or wake-robin, and replant each rhizome. I count 10 divisions in that shovelful, above, each of which will become an entire clump. They’ll need to be watered well, especially the ones that have top-heavy flowers on them, and then baby-sat a bit till they resettle, but the divisions typically bloom the next year.
My favorite day to do this: a rainy one, like today. The graphic below shows the simple steps in photos:
Anatomy of a trillium (and how to grow them)
(From Tony Avent at Plant Delights)
‘T RILLIUMS have an interesting anatomy,” Tony Avent writes in the Plant Delights catalog. “The three ‘leaves’ that give trillium plants their characteristic form are actually bracts. The true leaves are greatly reduced structures that surround the underground rhizome. Trillium seeds are also fascinating…they are attached to a nutritious structure called an elaiosome that insects love to eat. When trillium seeds are ripe, ants and wasps carry them to their nests where they consume the elaiosome and leave the seed to germinate…a horticultural win-win situation.”
- Read or listen to my interview with Tony on how to grow trillium.
Trillium: The Princess of the Forest
By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide & Retired Research Forester
Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) is the only plant species with its very own festival at Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA). I suspect there are several reasons for this First, trilliums have one of the largest flowers in the forest Second, they are one of the earliest flowers in the forest, coming at a time when we are desperate for any sign of spring (although Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) and the hazels (Corylus sp.) do bloom earlier than trilliums) Third, they grow right on the ground, where they are easily seen (no matter how cute bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) flowers might be, if they’re 60 feet off the ground, who can see them?) Fourth, they’re pretty common, much more so than the dramatic but un common (at TCSNA) Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum).
Beyond the pretty flowers, these plants are interesting in a host of other ways.
Image Credit Hokkaido University https://hosho.ees.hokudai.ac.jp/tsuyu/top/dct/lc.html
The Life Cycle of a Trillium
The perennial parts of the trillium, the rhizome and roots, are underground. The above ground parts are only present for the spring, summer, and sometimes autumn. The annual scars on the underground stem (“rhizome”) reveal its age. Trilliums over 50 years old have been found in the western United States. The trilliums probably live longer than this, but very old parts of the stem tend to decay away. Thus, the true maximum age is difficult to determine.
The trillium goes through at least 4 different stages during its life. These stages look different, and are indicated in the chart below (all photos taken at TCSNA). After a trillium seed germinates, the plant will remain in the “cotyledon” stage for one, and only one, whole summer. (This amazes me!) As you can see from the picture with my thumb as a scale, the cotyledon is tiny! Next, the plant will spend one or more summers in the “one-leaf” stage. In this stage the leaf is typically no larger than your thumbnail. Finally, the plant reaches the easily recognizable three leaf stage. Typically, there is at least one year when a 3-leafed plant doesn’t produce flowers. Finally the plant reaches the three leaf stage with a flower.
Diagram by Bruce Rottink, based upon: Ream, Tarn. 1991. Life History and Demography of Trillium ovatum Pursh. (Liliaceae) in Western Montana. Masters thesis, University of Montana.
Note that the plant may spend more than one year in the one-leaf, three-leaf and three-leaf with flower stages. It may also cycle back and forth between some stages, as indicated by arrows in the diagram.
Annual Development of a Flowering Trillium
Newly emerged trillium plants. On the left, the stem is struggling to pull the leaves above ground in the right photo, the tight coil of leaves is upright, with a flower peeking out.
Over winter, there are normally no above-ground signs of trillium. The first sign of the trillium in the spring is the emergence of a tightly rolled cluster of leaves on a stout stem, as seen below. Occasionally, you will see a trillium stem bent over in an upside down U-shape, and it looks like the stem is struggling to pull the leaves above ground.
Eventually, the leaves unroll, and the flower opens in all its glory, as seen below. For the years 2014 – 2016, I have documented the first trillium flower at TCSNA. They are open enough to see the flower’s sex organs as early as March 2, and as late as March 10.
As the petals age, they start to turn a pinkish color. The intensity of the pinkness is extremely variable. One intensely pink flower is shown below. Based on observations at TCSNA, the petals generally start to turn pink approximately 2 to 3 weeks after they first open. The environmental conditions at any given location probably play a big role for any particular plant. This phase can be even more dramatic than the earlier white phase.
Recently opened trillium flower with ripe pollen
It’s All About Reproduction
The role of the flower, of course, is to produce seeds. Researchers have discovered that unlike many plants, trilliums do not produce nectar to attract pollinating insects. Apparently trilliums attract insects hungry for their pollen, some of which the insects then unknowingly carry to other trilliums.
Read more about Trillium seeds in the next article: TRILLIUM FESTIVAL II – THE SEQUEL
How to grow trilliums
Trilliums are some of the most beautiful and desirable hardy perennials. They are relatively easy to grow but can be slow to establish. They are woodland plants originating from North America and some from Asia. They dislike hot dry conditions, enjoy moisture but hate waterlogging and heavy clay soils. They are not plants for containers, but are ideal in soil that is rich in organic matter under the dappled shade of deciduous trees and shrubs. Trilliums prefer neutral to acid soil and will not succeed in dry, alkaline conditions.
Trilliums grow from rhizomes. Small dormant rhizomes are often sold in autumn. They are not impressive “flowerbulbs” more like a bigger lump of peat or peat substitute than the rest of the contents of the pack they are offered in! However the more vigorous varieties such as the white Trillium grandiflorum are usually quite successful started in this way. They do not usually flower well, if at all in their first season. However once established they are long lived plants that return year after year. They usually emerge in early to mid-spring and die down anytime from mid-summer to autumn. They appreciate being mulched with leaf mould or good garden compost in autumn.
Trilliums can be grown from seed, but it can take up to two years for the seed to germinate and another five to seven for the plants to flower. Pot grown trilliums are sometimes offered in nurseries. It is hardly surprising that they are at a premium price considering how long they take!
[caption align="alignleft"] Trillium cuneatum[/caption]
Types of trillium
Trillium grandiflorum, American wake robin is the more vigorous pure white trillium with conspicuous pure white petals and fresh green foliage.
Trillium erectum is more correctly called wake robin as its red flowers reflect the colour of the robin’s breast in spring. Nodding flowers with narrow petals on taller, upright stems.
Trillim cuneatum, known as sweet Betsy or wood lily is often sold as Trillium sessile It has dark green, broad, spotted leaves which form a solid collar beneath the dark red petalled flower. The petals stand upright and maintain a narrow tulip form.
Trillium luteum, Yellow wake robin had deep green leaves spotted with silver and bright yellow flowers with narrow petals.
Trilliums are called Wake robin in New England because they herald the return of spring.
The botanical name trillium comes from the fact the flower has three petals carried above a rosette of three leaves. This is also the derivation of the common name tri-flower.
[caption align="alignleft"] Trillium Cuneatum[/caption]
The white trillium is the official flower and emblem of the province of Ontario
The white trillium is the official wildflower of Ohio
The major soccer teams of Toronto, Ontario and Columbus Ohio compete for the Trillium Cup
The trillium has the common name “Birthroot”. This originates from the traditional use of extract of trillium root as a stimulant to induce labour.
In Michigan and Minnesota it is illegal to pick trillium because picking the flower can kill the plant. This is also true of the red trillium in New York State.
The young, unfolded leaves of Trillium sessile are reputed to be tasty addition to salad reminiscent of sunflower seeds. (I do not recommend you try this!)
Fall is the time to buy dormant trillium rhizomes take a look at http://www.directbulbs.co.uk/
[caption align="alignleft"] Trillium luteum[/caption]
[caption align="alignleft"] trillium erectum[/caption]
. Read more Andy McIndoe is our Chief Blogger, and teaches five courses on the site. Andy has over thirty years experience as a practical horticulturist and consultant. He has designed and advised on gardens of all sizes and was responsible for the Hillier Gold Medal winning exhibit at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower for 25 years. A regular contributor to magazines, newspapers and BBC Radio, Andy lectures widely at home and abroad. Special interests include hardy shrubs, trees, herbaceous perennials, flower bulbs, wildlife and garden design he has authored books on all of these subjects. A keen gardener Andy and his wife Ros have a two acre garden in Hampshire, U.K. that is open to groups by appointment. Started from scratch fifteen years ago, the garden is naturalistic in style, with an extensive wildflower meadow and informal planting. The emphasis is on foliage to provide colour and texture. W W . Read more