(Information for this species page was gathered in part by John Florida for the Spring 2006 section of Biology 220W at Penn State New Kensington)
The red trillium (Trillium erectum) has a number of common names which are reflective of many of its distinctive ecological, anatomical, and chemical properties. The trillium flowers have a faint, but pungently foul odor which has variously been described as resembling the scent of a wet dog or of rotting meat. This stench has led to names such as “stinking Willie” and “stinking Benjamin.” Extracts of the roots and poultices of the entire plant have astringent and antiseptic properties and were used by Native Americans in a variety of medicinal applications including the control of uterine bleeding during parturition. So, names such as “birthroot” (which was mispronounced as “Beth root” and “bath root”) have been applied. It is sometimes also referred to as “nosebleed trillium” because of these astringent applications. It is also called “snakebite plant,” “rattlesnake root,” “cough root,” “milk ipecac,” and “Indian balm.” Its distinctive, three-leaf structure has generated names such as “three-leaf nightshade,” and “Indian shamrock,” and the tendency of the red, flower head to droop downward is described in the names “nodding trillium” and “nodding wake-robin.”
Habitat and Growth Pattern
Trillium erectum blooms in the early to mid spring depending on weather and local conditions. On our Nature Trail, the red trillium is most commonly in flower from mid April to mid May. Flowers are typically deep red in color (but may vary from pink to a lavender red) and sit atop a 2 to 8 cm tall stalk. Color change in the petals is an indication that pollination has occurred. The three, lancelet-shaped flower petals are 3 to 7 cm long and up to 3 cm wide. Blooms on an individual plant may, under ideal conditions, persist for a month. Plants need to reach an age of 15 years before they bloom. Plants can live for up to 30 years.
Flower removal is a very serious stress on a T. erectum individual. Picking flowers may result in the death of the plant or, if the plant survives, render the plant unable to flower for, possibly, the next seven years.
The leaves of T. erectum contain calcium oxalate crystals which make them unpalatable or even toxic to many herbivores (including humans). White tailed deer and woodchucks, however, do graze on T. erectum. Deer browsing, in particular, may result in local extirpation of the plant. Competition by fast growing, exotic, invasive species such as garlic mustard has also reduced the densities and distribution of T. erectum.
Pollination and Fruiting
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This page was last updated on
June 7, 2015