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This common woodland spring ephemeral is native to eastern North America and blooms from March through April with nodding, yellow flowers and exquisitely mottled green-and-maroon leaves. In the wild, yellow trout lily grows up to 8” tall and is often found under deciduous trees that allow ample sunlight and moisture in spring and mostly shady and dry conditions during summer. While it prefers moist, humusy soils, the plant can be grown in denser soils that have been amended with compost. Yellow trout lily has deeply buried corms shaped like a dog’s tooth (another common name is dogtooth violet), and the corms spread rapidly to form colonies by sending up several single-leaved, sterile offshoots along with one fertile plant. Sterile offshoots bear a single, waxy, upright leaf, while fertile offshoots feature a pair of leaves accompanied by a bell-like flower whose back-swept petals are charmingly blushed with purplish red.  It takes several seasons for the young corms to produce flowers, so portions of large colonies—some of which are up to 300 years old!--will not be in bloom in any given year. Although the flowers attract miner bees and other pollinators, only 10 percent of pollinated flowers develop seeds. To increase the odds of survival, the seeds have tasty appendages called elaiosomes that entice ants to carry them back to their nests. The elaiosomes are eaten, and the discarded seeds are given the chance to germinate in spring, away from competition of the parent plant in rich, crumbly soil.


The attractive mottling on the leaves serves as camouflage to protect the plant from browsing mammals, and admirers have devised imaginative common names to describe the leaves, such as fawn lily (ears of an alert fawn or the fawn’s markings), adder’s tongue (appearance of leaves emerging in spring), brook trout (markings of a brook trout), and deer tongue.     


Native habitats include woodlands with moist, well-drained soils; banks of streams; and slopes of ravines. Use in woodlands, pollinator gardens, and naturalized areas. Try pairing with hostas, ferns, and other shade-loving plants. Plant the corms about 4” deep and apart.


Plant Characteristics:

Grows 4-8” tall and wide.


Prefers dappled spring sunlight and part to full shade in summer.


Thrives in well-drained, moist, humusy soils.


Single flowers at the end of stiff, leafless stalks are 4-7” long. Each flower has 6 lance-shaped tepals (3 petals and 3 similar sepals) that are about an inch long, sometimes tinged with purple and spotted with reddish dots in the throat. The tepals curve out and away from 6 long stamens that are often tipped with red anthers. The fruit is an erect, oval-shaped capsule with rounded tip.


Elliptic- to oval-shaped leaves are 2 ½-6” long and ½-2” wide with smooth margins.


Wildlife Value:

A specialist miner bee, Andrena erythronii (trout lily mining bee), depends upon the pollen to feed its young. The flowers attract long-tongued bees, blowflies, and butterflies, including sulphurs and whites. The leaves and seed capsules are browsed by deer to a limited extent. The corms are a mainstay of the chipmunk's diet.


Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Iroquois women ate the leaves as a contraceptive, and Cherokee chewed the root and spit it into water to attract fish. A medicinal tea was used to treat fevers, ulcers, and swollen glands. One source indicates that skin contact with the corms has been known to cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals.


The bulbs have been ground into powders in Europe and Japan to use in candies, sauces, and other dishes. The mild-flavored leaves and slightly sweet flowers can be used in salads. The flowers, leaves, and corms can be used to make tea.


The bulbs were considered to be an aphrodisiac by 17th century Europeans.


Caution: trout lily is an emetic; avoid eating large amounts at one time.

Trout Lily, Yellow, Erythronium americanum

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