When hiking in the woods in the Pacific Northwest, area residents will sometimes run across Trillium flowers, a three-petal flower usually white, sitting above pointed leaves.
Trillium are described as “spring ephemeral” flowers, meaning they are wildflowers that develop the aerial parts (i.e. stems, leaves and flowers) of the plant early each spring and then quickly bloom, and produce seed. The leaves often wither, leaving only underground structures (roots, rhizomes, and bulbs) for the remainder of the year.
While they are beautiful to look at they are also extremely fragile, and picking them seriously injures the plant by preventing the leaf-like bracts from producing food for the next year, often effectively killing the plant and ensuring none will grow in its place.
Some species of trillium are listed as threatened or endangered; picking these species may be illegal. Laws in some jurisdictions may restrict the commercial exploitation of trilliums and prohibit collection without the land owners permission.
Trillium ovatum, otherwise known as Wake Robin, or the Western Trillium, is perhaps the most familiar floral sight in our woods and forests. As its common name suggests, it is one of the earliest blooming of our native flowers, a herald of spring. There are a few species of trillium native to our area, part of a group of hundreds of species worldwide.
The Eastern White Trillium is the official flower of the Canadian province of Ontario, and also of Ohio. Known from the Pacific Northwest, south to California, and inland to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, the Western White Trillium is the most widespread trillium in the western states. The plant is most common in rich deciduous and mixed upland forests. It is easily-recognized by its attractive three-petaled white flowers, opening from the late spring to the early summer, that rise above a whorl of three, leaf-like bracts. As the flower ages, it turns purple.
Trillium is one of many plants whose seeds are spread by ants. At maturity, the base and core of the trillium ovary turns soft and spongy. Trillium seeds have a fleshy organ that produces small fruits that attracts ants. The ants take the fruits to their nest, where they eat them but put the seeds in their “garbage,” where they can germinate in a rich growing medium.
So, area residents are encouraged to enjoy its gentle beauty as they discover Trillium in the woods, alder thickets and along secluded forest paths. Photograph them, point them out to children or co-hikers, but do not pick them.