Plant of the Week
Red trillium (Trillium erectum L.)
By Mark Pistrang
Based upon recent genetic research, trillium species have been removed from the family Trilliaceae and placed back in the Liliaceae family. Trilliums 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 small, scale-like leaves called cataphylls. These highly modified leaves surround the flowering scape (the above ground plant) as it pushes up through soil in early spring. The leaf-like structures are technically bracts subtending the flower. Despite their morphological origins, the bracts have external and internal structure like that of a leaf, function in photosynthesis, and most authors refer to them as leaves.
Red trillium is found in rich, moist woods from Manitoba, Canada east to Nova Scotia, south to Georgia and Alabama, and north to Illinois and Michigan. Red trillium tends to occur in drier habitats and is typically found on acid soils, in open dry or rich mesic woods, within laurel and rhododendron thickets.
Trilliums are divided into two major groups: the pedicellate and sessile trilliums. In the pedicellate trilliums, the flower sits upon a pedicel (stalk) that extends from the whorl of bracts. These trillium flowers are either “erect,” above the bracts, or “nodding,” recurved under the bracts. In the sessile trilliums there is no pedicel and the flower appear to arise directly from the bracts.
Red trillium falls within the pedicellate group. This beautiful spring wildflower’s flower is on a recurved pedicel that curls back under the leaves often obscuring it from view. Flowers are typically seen from late March through June. It is distinguished by its nodding white, pink or rose-colored flowers, about 6.5 centimeters wide (2.5 inches), with egg-yolk yellow anthers. It has widely spaced leaves that are rolled inwardly along the length of the leaf, which can be up to 17.5 centimeters long (7 inches). This unusual leaf morphology allows for the flower to be more readily seen. The plant reaches 20 to 40 centimeters in height (8 to 16 inches).
The root was traditionally used as an aid in childbirth, hence the name “Bethroot” (a corruption of “birth root”). Native Americans used root tea for menstrual disorders, to induce childbirth, and to aid in labor. The whole plant was made into a poultice used to treat tumors, inflammation, and ulcers.
For More Information
- PLANTS Profile - Trillium erectum L., red trillium
- Trillium erectum in Flora of North America @ efloras.org
- Case, Jr., Frederick W., Roberta B. Case. 1997. Trilliums. 285 p. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
- Jacobs, Don L. and Rob. L. Jacobs. 1997. Trilliums in Woodland and Garden: American Treasure. 152 p. Eco-Gardens, Decatur, GA.