The Many Pleasures of Trillium

By David Spector Gazette Contributing Writer

At this time of year I enjoy watching the red trilliums, with their threefold symmetry and deep red color, flowering in the woods near my house.

They please me for many reasons.

I find the simplicity of the flower beautiful—the large petals, the three- way replication of pattern, the spacing of the plants that allows easy focus on one flower at a time. I enjoy the deep, understated red of the flowers, seeming to glow slightly in the shade of the woods.

The timing of the flowers’ appearance also invites pleasure. Trilliums (and trout lilies and many other woodland spring wildflowers) mark the height of spring, as the threat of frost wanes, trees leaf out, and millions of warblers, thrushes, vireos and flycatchers pour into the northern woods for another breeding season.

In his classic book Wake-Robin (another name for trilliums), the 19th- century naturalist John Burroughs wrote that, “With me this flower is associated, not merely with the awakening of the Robin, for he has been awake for some weeks, but with the universal awakening and rehabilitation of nature.”

How does the trillium, underground all winter, “know” to send up its flowers in the spring? I doubt that anyone knows all the details for this species, but botanists are discovering answers for various species with similar life histories. For example, they have identified some of the proteins and the interactions among them that enable a plant to keep track of temperature changes and time. I enjoy reading about this research and knowing that people are deepening our collective understanding of the mechanisms of nature.

“Stinking trillium”

Many people associate flowers with beautiful odors, but not this plant, sometimes called the “stinking trillium.” After a close encounter most people do not want to bring their noses near this flower again. For certain observers of plants’ reproductive strategies, though, this odor is part of the appeal of the plant. The odor attracts the particular species of flies that carry pollen from one flower to another. Is saying that the odor “attracts” flies the same as saying that the odor is attractive, maybe beautiful, to those flies? If, as is the case with many flowers, the trillium does not offer the flies much or any nectar in return for their pollination service, the flies might have reason to consider the flowers offensive despite the attraction of their chemical signals. I doubt that flies have a sense of beauty or betrayal (not, at least, in the same ways we experience these feelings), but, regardless of whether the flies enjoy the trillium’s scent or resent any deception, I enjoy knowing about the flies.

There is more of interest about trilliums than their flowers, and I will continue to watch these plants after flowering is past. I will watch for the ants that disperse the trilliums’ seeds in a mutualistic relationship, beneficial for both species. The plant provides the insects with a small meal in a structure attached to the seeds and the ants disperse and plant the seeds. I learned about this relationship quite recently, since last season’s trilliums flowered and set seed, and this is the first year in which I will know to watch for this phenomenon. I enjoy learning more about nature, about the relationships that shape our forests and the research that uncovers those relationships.

As I continue to learn about the trillium it becomes more enjoyable to me: It is more than just a pretty flower; rather, it is part of a wide web of natural interactions and part of a deepening investigation into the processes that surround and shape us. As you enjoy a flower, tree, bird or butterfly, I invite you to think about which of my reasons for enjoyment you might share and which others I might have missed above. Maybe, like me, you will find that conscious reflection on some sources of enjoyment is itself enjoyable.

David Spector is a former board president of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and teaches biology at Central Connecticut State University.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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