Today, a walk through one of the natural woodland areas on the property, near one of the creeks, revealed the first blooming Trillium ovatum of the season.

Trillium ovatum

Trillium ovatum is a native of the west coast of North America, ranging from British Columbia to California, and east to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, and grows wild here on the property.  Of the all native plants here, Trillium ovatum is perhaps the most elegant of our understory plants, and definitely my favorite. Each spring it becomes a challenge, and a thrill, to find them growing and blooming amidst all of the redwood sorrel and ferns.

Most of the Trillium here grows in our undisturbed woodland areas

Trillium ovatum is also known by many common names, including Pursh, Pacific Trillium, Trinity Flower, Woodlily, Western Wake Robin, or Western White Trillium. The name Wake Robin came about because the flowers were observed to appear early in the spring, around the time of the Robin’s arrival. A similar species, Trillium grandiflorum is more common on the east coast of North America, and is similar in appearance, except that Trillium ovatum has narrower flower petals.

This Trillium species ranges between 8-12 inches in height, and bears broad ovate leaves in a single whorl of three.  You may hear this plant referred to as Trinity Flower, so named for the three leaves, three persistent sepals, and the three petal arrangement of the flowers.

The classic whorl of three leaves of Trillium ovatum

The flowers of Trillium ovatum are usually upright, and borne on a short stalk above the leaves.  The flower color is pure white, gradually changing to a deep rose-colored hue with age. Occasionally Trillium ovatum is found with flowers that initially open a shade of rose and retain that color throughout the bloom period.

An aged deep rose-colored Trillium ovatum flower

On this walk along the northern creek bank, I only found a total of four Trillium ovatum that were blooming, one of which demonstrated the deep rose color.  In the time we’ve been here, the only other area here where we have seen Trillium is in a steep shaded canyon on the Western flank of the property, and they are far from being a common sight here.

This is the first year that I’ve caught the Trilliums early enough in the season before the leaves have completely unfurled.  I had no idea until today that as the flowers begin to open, the three leaves are still wrapped around the petals like a protective hood.

A Trillium ovatum flower before the leaves unfurl

Side view of Trillium ovatum before the flower and leaves are fully open

An emerging Trillium ovatum

Trillium ovatum

Eventually the leaves open, and release the flower within

Native American peoples are known to have used Trillium ovatum as a medicinal herb.  The Karok and Quileute used the juice of scraped rhizomes as a dermatologic aid, applying the residues to boils.  The Paiute, Lummi and Skagit apparently used an infusion of the roots as an eye medicine. [1]

As beautiful as Trilliums are, if you encounter them in the woods, please don’t pick the flowers.  Trilliums are very long-lived if left undisturbed.  One plant was reportedly aged at 72 years!  Although not rare along the west coast, due to habitat encroachment Trilliums are becoming less common regionally in some parts of the West.  Trilliums grow from an underground rhizome.  Each year after the flowers and leaves senesce, the plant becomes dormant, but will re-emerge from the same rhizome the following spring.  Repeated picking of the flowers and leaves however interferes with the rhizome’s ability to gather and store the nutrients necessary for growth and survival.

Trillium ovatum

Trillium also reproduces from seed, but it takes approximately two to three years for the seed to germinate, and at least six to seven years for a plant to bloom when started from seed.  Seed dispersal in the wild is dependent on insects.  The seed bears a conspicuous, yellow food-body, called an elaiosome, which is very attractive to ants. Ants gather the seeds, and then transport them to their nests.  They then consume the oily elaiosome, discarding the inner seed, which can then later germinate.[2]

I would love to try propagating more Trillium here, but I’m not sure I have enough patience to wait seven years for them to grow and bloom!  Our Trilliums here however are in undisturbed areas of the property, and hopefully will slowly propagate themselves over the coming years.

[1] Daniel E. Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotanical Database

[2] Mesler, M.R and Lu, K.L.  Seed Dispersal of Trillium Ovatum (Liliacae) in Second Growth Redwood Forests.  American Journal of Botany, Vol. 70, No. 10 (Nov. – Dec., 1983), pp. 1460-1467.