Plant of the Week

Trillium cuneatum range map.
Trillium cuneatum range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Trillium cuneatum.
Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum). Photo by Mark Pistrang.

Trillium cuneatum.
Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum). Photo by Mark Pistrang.

Trillium cuneatum.
Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum). Photo by Mark Pistrang.

Little Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)

By Mark Pistrang

All trillium species belong to the Liliaceae (lily) family and are rhizomatous herbs with unbranched stems. Trillium plants produce no true leaves or stems above ground. The “stem” is actually just an extension of the horizontal rhizome and produces tiny, scalelike leaves (cataphylls). The aboveground plant is technically a flowering scape, and the leaf-like structures are actually bracts subtending the flower. Despite their morphological origins, the bracts have external and internal structure similar to that of a leaf, function in photosynthesis, and most authors refer to them as leaves.

Trilliums are generally divided into two major groups: The pedicellate and sessile trilliums. In the pedicillate trilliums, the flower sits upon a pedicel that extends from the whorl of bracts, “erect” above the bracts or “nodding” recurved under the bracts. In the sessile trilliums, there is no pedicel and the flower appears to arise directly from the bracts.

Little sweet Betsy falls within the sessile group and typically flowers from early March to mid April. Despite its less than glorious common name, it is actually quite a delight to find in the spring. It can be found in rich, mostly upland woods, especially on limestone soils. The species is occasionally also found persisting in old fields, ditches, or other disturbed sites. It is found across Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, however Trillium cuneatum has escaped locally and become established in Michigan and other more northern states. It is most frequent on the Ordovician limestone-derived soils of southern Kentucky and Tennessee, and is perhaps the most vigorous and certainly the largest of the eastern sessile trilliums. Although Little sweet Betsy is a common species in the southeastern states, numerous color morphs and subtle structural differences make it very difficult to separate from several other less common species.

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