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Interesting Facts About Trilliums

We live in Canada's cottage country where we enjoy nature and our many wild friends.



Ontario's Provincial Flower

The trillium seems to have caught on in the imagination of Ontario residents. Inspired by the interest to find a Canadian flower suitable for planting on the graves of Canadian WW1 service members overseas, on March 25, 1937, the Ontario legislature adopted the white trillium as the province's official flower.

Although the choice for a national flower did not happen, the Ontarians continued to celebrate the trillium in many ways. Since 1964, it has been the official logo of the Ontario government. The trillium also appears in Ontario's flag, in its emblems, and the names of its industries and institutions.

Part of this must be its beauty, with three white petals turning to mauve once pollination has occurred. Another part is, of course, the trillium heralds spring after classically horrible Ontario winters. But perhaps the most prominent part is the absolute beauty of fields of trilliums blooming just in time to beat the invasion of the green underbrush. It's stunning in its ability to grow in the most inhospitable soil of rock and rotting leaves.

Purple Trillium

Purple Trillium

Trillium's Three

Three leaves, three petals, and three stigmas. That is why it got its name. It's fascinating to view these three as they grow to carpet the woods. Nothing can compare to this spectacle in the early spring.

The trillium has acquired other names. Some call it the wakerobin because of its appearance just before the robins come. It's also known as birthroot or birthwort because the North American natives used them to treat wounds during childbirth. Sometimes, it's also called Stinking Benjamin because of the red trillium's unpleasant odour.

There are about 50 species of trillium native to temperate regions of North America and Asia as well.

White Trillium

White Trillium

How Trilliums Spread

Interestingly, the significant spreaders of trillium seeds are deers and ants. Usually, around the trillium patch, ants are busy going about their business. They love to eat the fleshy structure attached to the trillium seeds called Elaiosome. They carry the seeds to their nests, thereby distributing them.

The whitetail deer also loves to eat trillium flowers, especially the big ones, and they're the ones who carry the seeds far.

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Propagation of Trillium Seeds

Trilliums have 16 seeds. They are, however, slow-growing plants. It takes two years for the seeds to germinate and another eight years for the plant to bloom.

After this first bloom, the plant may live for another ten to thirteen years. Often, when someone picks its bloom, the plant may not survive. It's perennial but very fragile.

Trillium Varieties and Zones

Only five native species are in Ontario. These are the white, red, painted, nodding and drooping. The drooping variety grows only in southwestern Ontario in the Carolinian forest. They grow along the Sydenham River in Middlesex County and along the Thames River in Elgin county.

Trilliums, especially the red variety, love to grow in excellent, moist, neutral, acidic soils of mixed deciduous, coniferous forest and swamps.

Several reasons for the loss of trilliums are urban development, degradation or alteration of its habitat, and damage due to recreational activities like ATV use and even hiking.

Trilliums Turning to Mauve

Trilliums Turning to Mauve

Trillium Uses

The question often asked of trilliums is, "Are they edible?"

Some species of trillium contain phytochemicals called sapogenins which were used by folk healers to stimulate the uterus at birth. This is why many know trilliums birthworts. Medicinally, the root is used as an antiseptic, astringent, expectorant and uterine tonic. However, caution must be taken as it can cause nausea and promote labour and menstruation when taken in high doses. It should never be taken during pregnancy.

Its young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. These young leaves taste like sunflower seeds and are best added to salads. These leaves can also be cooked to make tea. However, it is advised to consume only small quantities.

White Trillium

White Trillium

Can You Pick Trillium?

There's a popular myth that it is illegal to pick trillium. This is not true. However, it is illegal to pick vegetation from Ontario parks and the parks are often where the trilliums grow. Also, trilliums are very fragile so they may not grow where you'll transplant them.

There was an attempt to pass a bill to make picking of trilliums illegal. In 2009, a private member bill called the Ontario Protection Act proposed a fine of $500 but this bill did not pass.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Mary Norton

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