Trilliums Create an Elegant Understory

One of the most graceful flowers of the woodland garden is trillium, a genus of more than 40 species of spring ephemeral perennials that are native to North America. Commonly called Wakerobin, Wood lily and Trinity flower, trilliums enchant us with single large blossoms poised above three whorled leaves. Thus the Latin name trillium – tres for three leaves, three sepals and three flower petals, and lilium for the lily family that trilliums belong to.

Trilliums make wonderful additions to woodland gardens, combining beautifully with columbines, wild geraniums, mayapples and bloodroot. Like other spring ephemerals, they bloom early, usually in late April to May in New England, then go dormant in the summer. They should be planted with other shade lovers such as ferns and hostas that will grow up to take their place. When in bloom, trilliums are a stunning sight. Their single, large, cup-shaped flowers, 2-4” in diameter with slightly ruffled edges, hover above a rosette of oval leaves on plants that are only 12” high. Some varieties have double flowers, and all produce a berry-like fruit after flowering.

Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) has crisp white flowers that fade to soft pink and rose as they age. Wakerobin (Trillium erectum) is more diminutive in size, with flowers that are a dark reddish-purple, and occasionally pink, white or light green. For a really unusual addition to the garden, look for Trillium cuneatum “Whippoorwill Toadshade” which features attractively mottled gray-green and maroon leaves and  purple flowers.

Trillium flowers should be enjoyed in the garden, but not in the vase. You cannot pick the flowers without picking the leaves, and the leaves provide nourishment for the plant for the following year. The plants grow from rhizomes, and each rhizome may send up as many as eight flower-bearing stems once established. These creeping underground stems allow the plants to spread like a groundcover over time. Trilliums are easy to grow, long-lived plants, surviving more than 25 years if given the right conditions. They are hardy in zones 2-8, and thrive in moist, humus-rich soil in part to full shade. They are best planted in the fall, with the rhizomes set 2 to 4 inches deep, and the soil mulched with leaf mold or compost for the winter.

Trilliums are usually propagated by division, as it takes nearly seven years from seed to blooming plant. They are rarely sold in nurseries, so it’s best to befriend a fellow gardener who is willing to share their collection. My trillium was given to me by a friend who spends her winters in Arizona and returns to the Northeast just in time to see the white trilliums light up her serene shade garden. Located on a winding road in the woods, her garden is filled with the native woodland wildflowers that are exotic to new gardeners and coveted by more experienced ones. I recently found a little Golden Nature Guide to American Wildflowers that my aunt gave me when I was ten years old. To my amazement, it was filled with the wildflowers that have achieved almost cult-like status today – Lady Slippers, Tiarellas, Mayapples, Solomon’s Seal, Jack-in-the-Pulpits and of course, Trilliums. You can purchase trilliums locally from Garden in the Woods in Framingham and from online sources such as Plant Delights Nursery,