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Red Trilliums covered in a dusting of snow

All About Trillium

There is nothing more spectacular in the woodland garden than when the trilliums are in full bloom. The flowers dance in the breeze, creating a carpet of white, red, or yellow flowers. It's truly a sign of spring.

Trilliums are ingrained in our culture. They grace U.S. postage stamps, are the state flower in many states and a Canadian Province, and are used as emblems on everything from restaurants to resorts. Trilliums, as the name implies have everything in 3s - three leaves, and three petals. Compared to the other spring flowers that bloom when winter is finally over in our cold climates, Trilliums have some of the showiest flowers. The characteristic three leaves and three-petaled flowers are immediately recognizable by many gardeners.

Trilliums are native to North America as well as Asia. The majority of the species are native to North America. A very few originate in Japan and Korea, none in Europe. You'll find them in the wild in our Eastern forests, Rocky Mountains, and along the West Coast. There are more than 30 species of native trillium - look for species adapted to where you live. While it's easiest to grow those native to your region of the country, you can also try other species from different areas, as long as you adjust the soil conditions accordingly.

White trillium over woodland floor
White Trillium is a classic woodland perennial that is often spotted during forest hikes.

Trillium Facts

Wildflower gardeners love them, and it is true that most of them are not difficult to grow or transplant, and if conditions are good, they thrive. However, it does help to know the facts.

Here's how they are propagated. Trilliums such as The Great White spread very slowly by underground rootstocks, and the seed produced creates new plants even more slowly. From a planted seed, it takes approximately five to nine years for a Trillium grandiflorum plant (the Great White Trillium) to bloom! So when you see a massive drift of these in spring, you know you're looking at a bunch of plants that are at least a decade old, probably much older. Trillium plants can live for up to 25 years.

And how do they propagate themselves? Well, T. grandiflorum is one of the wildflowers whose seeds are distributed by ants. Yes, ants--not birds, or bees, or the wind, but ants. This is why the species creates large, close drifts over the years. Plants are never very far apart, since ants don't travel far. So each clump of T. grandiflorum you see was planted where you see it by an ant. (They carry the seeds away when they fall from the plant, because the ants enjoy the sticky covering each seed case has when it falls to the ground.)

That brings us to the basic rarity of the Trilliums. A big factor is that each flower produces only one seed case when it fades. (Everybody knows that most flowers--a daisy, for example, produces hundreds of loose seeds from each flower.) So even if the ants find the sticky seed case, and take it underground where the several seeds inside can grow, there simply aren't huge numbers of white trillium seeds being planted each year. Other trillium species have various propagation strategies, but all take years and years.

Now you have some idea of the value of these beautiful plants. They are an important part of American botanical history, and deserve a place of honor in every American wildflower garden.

Popular Trilliums For The Garden

The most common trillium is the Great White (Trillium grandiflorum). It's hardy in USDA zones 4 to 7, stands 12- to 18-inches tall and produces 2-inch diameter white blossoms. Often the white flowers fade to a light pink as they age. There is a West coast version of this trillium species (T. ovatum) as well. While the eastern Great White trillium thrives among deciduous trees. The West coast version is often found among the redwoods.

 The Yellow Trillium (T. luteum), features yellow flowers on stalkless plants that stand a stocky 1 foot tall. The flowers seem to emerge from the leaves themselves. The blossoms have a slight lemon fragrance while the leaves are mottled. It's as hardy as the prairie trillium.

The Painted Trillium (T. undulatum) features white flowers with a red throat. Its hardiness is the same as the Great White trillium and stands 12 inches tall.

Rose Trillium (T. catesbaei), also sometimes called the Nodding Trillium for obvious reasons, this one is particularly beautiful, but shy. The flowers nod beneath the petals, with a hue of pastel pink or rose. The species name, catesbaei, is for the world-renowned plant explorer and botanical artist Mark Catesby, who visited the Carolinas, Florida and the Bahamas early in our history. Today, his prints, like Audubons, are quite valuable.The Rose Trillium (or Rosy Trillium or Catesbys Trillium) is one of the easiest to grow. It is native to our southeastern highlands, but does well in most of the country with the right conditions--which means rich woodland soil in shade. 

One of the most famous members of the famous Trillium family, Red Trillium (T. erectum) is known by several names, including Wake Robin. This beautiful wildflower is one of the easiest Trilliums to grow, since it is tolerant of acid or alkaline soils. Native all over the northern states from Maine to Michigan, and south to the Carolinas, mostly in mountains, the Red Trillium requires moist shade and rich woodland soil. The plant is hardy to USDA zones 4 to 7. The red to purple colored flowers form on 12- to 18-inch tall stalks.

For something unusual, try the propeller toad trillium (T. stamineum). This Southern favorite features chocolate-colored flowers that form like propellers on stocky one foot tall plants. It's hardy in USDA zone 5 to 8.

All About Trilliums: Planting Tips

Trilliums grow best in their native woodland habitat. They need dappled light to part shade from deciduous trees for good growth. They do most of their flowering and growing before the tree canopy fills out.

  • Select forest areas where trilliums won't have much competition from other woodland plants. Trilliums don't compete well with other plants and can get overrun if in the wrong location.
  • In the shade garden, plant them in compost amended soil in groups. The soil should be high in organic matter from decaying leaves or compost, moist and well-drained. The best way to know where a good place in your forest to plant trillium is to look to see where the native species is growing. Plant rhizomes scattered randomly throughout the forest floor. 
  • Don't plant them near other perennials that might overtake them in time. Some good companions in the flower garden include any of the other spring ephemeral flowers such as trout lilies, foam flowers, woodland phlox, solomon's seal and columbine They also look beautiful planted near Daffodils, Siberian squill and Species Tulips.
  • Overwintered primulas, pansies, and violas often will be in full bloom when trilliums are flowering, and these shade lovers complement the trillium flowers well.
  • Some shade perennials have colorful or interesting foliage that contrasts nicely with trillium. Look for red-foliaged epimediums, Japanese painted fern, and fern-leaf bleeding hearts. You can also plant trilliums in among evergreen ground covers, such as vinca and ivy. The colorful flowers will bloom above the ground cover foliage in spring.
  • Trillium spreads by clumping and self-sowing. However, it's not easy to germinate trillium seed. It's best to purchase nursery propagated and grown plants. Seed grown plants can take up to 10 years to bloom. Small trillium plants bought online or at the local garden center should bloom in a few years.
  • As clumps spread and more flowers are produced, it might be tempting to use the trillium flowers as a cut flower indoors. While this won't kill the plant, it will reduce flowering in subsequent years because you're most likely removing the leaves as well. The leaves only have a few weeks to store energy in the roots for next year's bloom cycle.
  • Since trillium plants go dormant and disappear by midsummer, mark where you'll want to plant more trillium in fall or early spring in the forest or your shade garden. The last thing you want to do is dig up established clumps because you didn't know they were there.

For more information, see our planting guide:

Grow Your Own Trilliums

About the Author: Charlie Nardozzi is a nationally recognized garden speaker, author, consultant, radio and TV show host. He delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. Visit his website, for how-to gardening information, and for more about Charlie.

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