It's trillium season
DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES The delicate and exquisite painted trillium is a fairly rare find in Simcoe County. It prefers a damper and slightly more acidic soil than the much more common white and red trillium species. Look for these beauties in hemlock swamps or where the groundwater is close to the surface.
The white-tailed deer had made their presence known by a series of nipped-off trillium stems – a seasonal reminder the deer are always out there, always hungry. Aside from human bouquet gatherers, trilliums usually don't have too much to worry about, other than a wandering doe.
The white trillium is probably our best-known native wildflower, and no doubt one of the first to be memorized by schoolchildren over the past eight decades. In 1937, it was designated Ontario's provincial floral emblem, and the adoration of this spring wildflower has continued strongly ever since.
Every hardwood forest seems to support at least a scattering of these large-blossomed beauties, with some forest floors being literally a blanket of white. Often sharing the rich, loamy spoil are bellwort, wild ginger, fawn lily, jack-in-the-pulpit and spring beauty, all interesting but none as showy as the big trilliums.
The reason for this "look at me" attitude is trilliums need to be pollinated by insects rather than the wind. Once the tree leaves burst open and the forest floor becomes shaded, flying insects drop off in number. If the white billboard blossoms haven't attracted a pollinator by then, it may be a wasted year as far as blossom production is concerned.
However, if pollinated successfully and seeds are produced, the trillium still requires insect assistance to complete its reproductive cycle. The distribution of those precious seeds depends on a nearby colony of hungry ants. In a process called myrmecochory (try that on your next spelling bee), ants collect and carry away the ripened seeds.
The seeds are covered in a protein-rich coating, a delight to the taste buds of the ants. Once the seed has been licked clean, it is discarded into a garbage chamber in the ant's underground nest. Now the seeds can germinate and grow forth next year, creating a new clump of stems as they compete with each other for sunlight.
One of the fun things about trilliums is there are four species that can be found, with a bit of searching, in our immediate area, and a fifth species grows elsewhere in the province. In order of blooming dates, we have white, red, painted and nodding. The very rare drooping trillium is found only around London and Windsor, in rich Carolinian-type woods. The drooping trillium was once thought to be extirpated from Ontario, but a few were rediscovered in the 1990s; that species is now listed as a species at risk.
A couple of misconceptions regarding white and red trilliums continues to surface every year, in regard to their colouration or, better stated, their changing colouration. As white trilliums age, the white petals turn pink. No, they don't change species – just colour. Pink trilliums are just white trilliums, only older.
Although not as common in their colour shifts, red trilliums occasionally grow with a mysterious lack of pigmentation in their petals, producing a pale yellow blossom. Again, not a new or separate species – just a fun find on a walk through the woods.
Painted trilliums are one of my favourite wildflowers, as they have the added tinge of a rose-coloured circle in their petals. Growing singularly and scattered, the discovery of a painted trillium is a special find; close scrutiny of the nearby area may produce a few more plants. Such was my luck a week ago in a nearby nature reserve, when one turned into three, then a dozen.
Due to the cold spring weather we've experienced this year, an interesting trait of trilliums was noted. The flower bud is created just above the root and is all ready to go once elevated by the stem and released by the enfolding leaves. Several of the painted trilliums noted this year had fully formed flowers still tightly wrapped by their three unfurled leaves. This early flower bud creation makes sense, as the flower must do 'its thing' rather quickly, whereas the leaves have all summer to gather energy from sunlight.
The leaves of any trillium are great solar collectors: broad, flat and with a short stem. Energy from sunlight is created and stored in the root, a process that may go for as many as eight years before the root has enough proteins to produce a flower bud. So, when you pick a trillium for a bouquet, you are wiping out at least eight years of botanical work.
If you really, really have to pick a trillium, do so only above the leaves. That way, the plant can continue collecting solar energy and will hopefully produce another blossom next year. If you pick the whole plant, leaves included, you have killed the plant. Float your (very few) freshly picked blossoms in a cold-water centrepiece.
Picking trilliums in a provincial park or nature reserve is a major no-no – in fact, illegal. Take lots of pictures and leave the blossoms for the next visitor to enjoy as well.
David Hawke is a columnist for the Packet & Times. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.