Luckily, this exquisite spring ephemeral is a common wildflower in Ohio. Its showy, pure-white flowers and whorled green leaves are so cherished that Ohio designated great white trillium the state wildflower in 1986. Grandi- means “large,” and florum comes from “Flora,” the Roman goddess of flowers (another common name is large-flowered trillium). According to Ohio botanist Andrew Lane Gibson, this species of trillium occurs in almost every county throughout the state and has the potential to grow into magnificent colonies largely because it’s able to thrive in a variety of soil conditions. Like other spring ephemerals (it’s also called white wake-robin), it needs dappled sunlight in spring and shadier conditions in summer and fall.
Each plant takes several years to produce a single-stalked, 4-inch flower--the largest of our trilliums—in mid to late spring. The wavy-edged petals and golden stamens rest upon maroon-edged sepals that sit above broad, oval-shaped leaves. The entire plant can be up to 18” in height, another reason it’s not likely to go unnoticed. As the flower ages, the petals turn various shades of pink and a six-angled seed capsule forms. It eventually splits open to release its seeds along with an ant-attracting aroma. The ants cart the seeds and their nutritious appendages (elaiosomes) back to their lairs, where young ants eat the elaiosomes and the seed is left behind for germination. The plant also spreads by underground rhizomes. Because deer love to consume it, the largest stands of this wildflower are seen in second-growth forests with smaller deer populations. Plant close to human-occupied areas to reduce this likelihood.
Great white trillium belongs to the bunchflower family, Melanthiaceae, whose characteristics include bunches of whitish flowers with an outer whorl of three sepals and inner whorl of three petals (the genus name refers to the flower parts and bracts occurring in threes). Trilliums are different in that they have a single large flower. A similar-looking species, Trillium flexipes (white trillium or drooping trillium), has slightly smaller flowers that tend to “nod,” and stout stigmas that are strongly recurved.
For best growth, space the small rhizomes about 6-12 inches apart and 2-4 inches deep in rich soil or soil that has been amended with leaf mulch or compost. Water after planting and during dry periods until they’re established. If the trees don’t do it for you, provide a layer of leaf mulch each fall. Trilliums do not compete well with other plants, so avoid crowding with other more exuberant plants.
Native habitats include rich woodlands, swamps, and shaded river banks. Will happily spread in woodlands and shade gardens.
Grows 12-15” tall.
Prefers dappled or full sun in spring and part or full shade in summer and fall.
Best sited in well-drained, loamy soils but adapts to a variety of soils.
A single, waxy-white flower with ovate-shaped petals grows on a 1-3” erect pedicil (stalk) late April-early June. Lance-shaped sepals are green to maroon and widely spread apart. Each flower gives way to a red, berry-like seed capsule that darkens with age and contains many seeds.
Glossy, ovate-shaped, medium green leaves are 6” long with smooth margins, parallel primary veins, and sharply pointed tips. They are in whorls of 3 at the top of the stem.
Trillium are a host plant for the black-patched clepsis and American angle shade moths. The flowers are visited by early-emerging native and honey bees. In areas where the plant is abundant, the large leaves provide cover for small mammals.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans gathered and chewed the roots to treat a variety of issues.
The young leaves have been eaten as cooked greens. However, this practice may contribute to the death of the plant.
Caution: Trilliums are related to poisonous plants, which may result in mild toxicity when eaten.
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