This native, early-spring ephemeral of eastern North America makes its entrance with a single white-and-pink flower perched atop whorls of large, blue-green leaves. It grows 8-12” tall in early-spring sunlight and prefers the humus-rich soils of woodlands, often growing at the feet of eastern white pines, red maples, red spruces, and balsam firs. It appears roughly at the same time as robins (another name is smiling wake robin) to quickly flower and reproduce before going dormant as the tree canopy fills in. It’s well adapted to the unique growing conditions of early spring, utilizing the sunlight, extra moisture, and nutrients while growing close to the ground to avoid cold, dry winds. The early show is possible because the plant has stored energy in its rhizomes from the previous year’s growth. Although currently endangered in Ohio and Michigan, painted trillium can live over 25 years as long as it isn’t over-browsed by deer or over-harvested by humans.
Painted 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. The large, leaf-like bracts are arranged in a spreading whorl around a scape (stem) that rises from a short rhizome. The funnel-shaped flower appears just above the bracts, sitting atop a short, arching stem. Each wavy-edged petal (undulatum means “wavy”) is white with a splash of pink at its base, and green, red-edged sepals rest below the petals. In fall, berry-like capsules ripen to bright red and emit a scent that attracts ants for seed dispersal, a symbiotic relationship called myrmecochory that addresses the scarcity of flying pollinators in early spring. Fatty appendages attached to the fruit capsule provide nutrients to ant larvae, and ant labor provides transportation for the seeds as they carry them down into their underground tunnels. Painted trillium also spreads by underground rhizomes. It goes dormant by midsummer, so combine it with other non-aggressive, shade-loving perennials that can carry the rest of the season. For best results, amend heavier soils with leaf mulch, compost, and add an additional layer of leaf mulch in fall. Mostly disease free, it may sometimes be bothered by slugs and snails.
Native habitats include moist but well-drained soils of woods and forests, sandy woods, and very acidic soils in the central Appalachian Mountains. Mass in shaded woodland and wildlife gardens and in naturalized areas. Use in beds and borders under roses and shrubs.
Mary Anne Borge, a freelance naturalist, writer, photographer and educator living in New Jersey, has given permission to use her photo and has published a beautiful article about the relationship between ants and trilliums on her website The Natural Web. You can find her article here.
Grows 8-20” tall and 12” wide.
Site in part, dappled or full shade.
Prefers moist, well-drained, acidic, loamy or sandy soils. Adapts to more-alkaline soils if given shade and moisture.
Two-inch flowers bloom for 4-6 weeks starting in late April. Broadly lance-shaped petals have tapered, pointed tips. Each flower has six pink-tipped stamens. Six-parted, scarlet fruit capsule is ½-1” long and contains many seeds.
Ovate, waxy leaves (bracts) are 2½-5” long, broadly rounded at the base, and tapered to a point. The bracts are ovate, each with its own petiole (leaf stalk).
Host plant for larvae of black-patched clepsis moth and American angle shades moth. Honey bees and bumble bees visit for pollen and nectar. In addition to yellow jackets and other wasps, ants are attracted to the elaiosomes, or fatty appendages attached to the seeds, and thus help them spread.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The Algonquin used parts of the plant to accelerate childbirth.
Some sources say the young, unfolding leaves may be boiled in salted water for 10 minutes and served like greens. However, the level of toxicity in painted trillium is unknown, and removing the leaves decreases the plant’s chance for survival.
Caution: Because many plants in the bunchberry family are toxic and painted trillium’s toxicity is unknown, the plant should not be consumed.
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