This herbaceous, perennial wildflower typically grows 6-12" tall with maroon flowers and mottled leaves that emerge in early March, often when snow is still on the ground. Although it’s especially common in states with prairies, it’s most often found in the moist, rich soils of woodlands where it has adapted to the unique growing conditions of early spring. Using energy stored from the previous year’s growth, early-spring sunlight, moisture, and nutrients, this trillium emerges quickly and produces flowers and seeds before the tree canopy fills in. The red to red-violet flowers bloom into late May when robins begin arriving, giving it another common name of prairie wake-robin. The meat-like color of the flowers may attract carrion beetles and flesh flies (it’s also known as bloody butcher), although little is known about the insect pollinators of this trillium. Three spreading leaves surround the single flower. The leaves are technically bracts that function so similarly to leaves in photosynthesis that most authors refer to them as leaves. For up to 10 years after a seed germinates, at least in the wild, these leaves will be all that is visible; trillium and their flowers are slow to develop due to their brief growing period in the spring.
Prairie trillium has several methods of reproducing, including spreading by rhizomes to form clonal colonies. It also produces seeds equipped with elaiosomes (nutritious fatty structures) that ants carry to their nests where the elaiosomes are chewed off to feed their young, and the unharmed seeds remain in the warm, moist soil to germinate the following spring. White-tailed deer, which eat the flowers and foliage of trilliums, help to distribute seeds across long distances. Unfortunately, too many deer in one location may destroy a population of the plants. Some botanists believe that the mottled pattern of the foliage is an adaptation to help blend the plant with the forest floor. In Ohio, prairie trillium is considered potentially threatened. To identify it, look for maroon, stalkless (sessile) flowers and downward-hanging sepals.
Native habitats include rich, open woodlands, savannas, fencerows with woody vegetation, rich clay soils of floodplains, and overgrown areas near railroads and waste areas. Good for naturalizing shady areas with moist, well-drained soils. For best results, amend heavier soils with leaf mulch or compost and add an additional layer of leaf mulch in fall. Avoid planting with highly competitive plants.
Typical growth is 6-12" tall, though in some conditions, may reach 18” tall.
Best sited in dappled sunlight to full shade.
Prefers moist, loamy, or rich clay soils with good drainage.
Flowers have 3 elliptical, 1”-long petals that curve inward towards each other; 3 lance-shaped, greenish-purple sepals; 6 stamens with long black anthers; and an ovary with 3 stigmata. Each flower gives way to a single, 6-angled berry about ½" long and pale green to purplish green. Each fruit contains several small, dark brown seeds.
Ovate-shaped leaves are 3-6" long with smooth margins. Upper leaf surface is medium green and heavily mottled with light green patches, while lower leaf surface is pale green and unmottled. Rarely, some plants have leaves with solid-green upper surfaces.
The erect central stem is light green to reddish purple.
Trilliums are a host plant for the caterpillars of black-patched clepsis moth and American angle shades moth. Some sources say bees and other pollinating insects enjoy the nectar from the flowers. Ants and small mammals enjoy the fruits and help them spread.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used the plant to facilitate childbirth.
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