This article by Hubert Ling (NPSNJ horticulture) was published in Gardener's News without the photos. He is a regular contributing writer to Gardener's News. Photos by H & M Ling.

White Trillium: Trillium grandiflorum

White Trillium
There are hundreds of trillium species around the world. NJ has 4 native species.

There are hundreds of trillium species around the world. NJ has 4 native species: nodding, painted, red, and white. Of these the white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is so rare in NJ that it is absent from most surveys and two lists which do include white trillium have no distribution data. Although white trillium grows from Canada to Georgia and west to Minnesota the plant is rare throughout much of its range which has been reduced to a fraction of the original due to standard farming practices and urban development.

Many trillium are generally solitary but white trillium, if undisturbed for dozens or hundreds of years, forms large closely packed colonies which can cover acres. Fortunately we can still see these spectacular 'snow drifts' of white trillium each spring in isolated areas of Michigan and Western Pennsylvania and New York. However, sadly, these wild flower displays, the most stunning in Eastern North America, are becoming less common each year.

An interesting fact about trilliums is that they don't have green leaves. The true leaves are small whitish growths on the underground stems (rhizomes). Above ground we find 3 large, green, leafy bracts which whorl around the flower stalk and another whorl of 3 small sepals just below the 3 snowy white petals; thus the name Trillium from the Latin 'tres' which means 3. The species name grandiflorum means big flowers. The flowers are about 3.5" wide but exceptional flowers can max out at about 5".

Since trilliums grow slowly in full shade or semi-shade flowering may take 10 years. For this reason propagated mature plants generally cost $25-30. Plants that sell for $4-9 have been ripped out of the wild and I can't recommend their purchase since that is contributing to the plant's extinction. The only grower of white trillium I can recommend is White Flower Farm of Morris CT which raises the double form 'Flore Pleno' at the expected price.

White trillium is found in rich, slightly acid moist soil. The plants spread out their leafy bracts early in spring before the forest canopy closes in and complete flowering in early spring. White trillium flowers generally start out pure white but the petals age to an interesting pink. One form of white trillium, T. grandiflorum f. roseum, starts off with light pink petals. Fruit and seed production are completed before summer and then the plants go dormant.

Seed distribution is generally carried out by ants which is called myrmecochory. Ants do this because trillium seeds have oil rich projections (elaiosomes) on the outside which the ants love to chew. After feeding on the eliasomes the seeds are dumped on the ant colonies garbage dump which is just the right place for the seeds to germinate. Ant garbage heaps are multi-storied (from the ant's prospective) and trillium seedlings develop better if buried a few stories down in the heap. Trillium seeds are also occasionally scattered by yellow jackets, other insects, and deer which graze on the ripened fruits which are about the size of a red raspberry.

Deer also browse on white trillium flowers and bracts and naturally forage on the tallest plants first. This information can be used to estimate the number of deer per square mile and assess the ecological health of a forest. Based on an acceptable rate of browsing which results in trillium 5½" tall, one square mile should support no more than 14 deer. Since my hometown of Bridgewater has 70 deer per square mile we are way over populated with deer as everyone here knows.

The Chippewa Indians used white trillium mash worked into the body with small needles on a wooden paddle for headaches and rheumatism. The inner root bark was boiled and placed in the ear for earaches. The roots are toxic and contain diosenin and trillarine. However, no trillium is common enough today to use as medicine when much more effective remedies are available.

Take a spring safari around mother's day and visit captive white trillium at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown; wild nodding trillium can be found gracing Hacklebarney State park in Long Valley.

See more photos in our spring photo gallery: spring photo gallery, white trillium,