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COLUMN: A beautiful trillium is eight years in the making

While there is no law against picking a trillium — outside of provincial parks — ask yourself if a temporary bouquet is worthwhile, urges columnist
20070506_Medonte_White Trilliums (Hawke)
It's that time of the year when local forest floors are covered with trilliums — a sure sign that spring is in full swing.

At this time of the year just about every walk in the woods or drive through the country side will place you smack dab in the middle of a trillium patch. They are everywhere, and unmistakable to recognize.

As our provincial emblem, nothing screams “Ontari-ari-ari-o” like a maple forest carpeted in white trilliums!

While certainly not an early spring flower (at least 30 other species have already popped their blooms open by now) the sight of a trillium patch is a confirmation that the spring season is now in full swing. (That and the emergence of blackflies!)

In central Ontario we have four species of trilliums, although a couple are quite a bit more challenging to find than the others. First to bloom was the red trillium, followed 48 hours later by the whites; in 43 years of recording flowering dates, I’ve found that this order is steadfast. As they both like a hardwood forest they are pretty easy to locate.

The third trillium to open will be the painted trillium, a demure little blossom that is much sparser in distribution than its red and white cousins. Painted trilliums love a good hemlock forest, a bit of cool damp soil with a touch of acidity. If you are seeking these beautiful flowers, keep your eyes open during the latter part of May.

And finally there will be the nodding trilliums, opening their well-hidden blossoms in early June. This species also likes a conifer swamp for living space, so you might get wet boots in the search. These trilliums hide their blooms by having them bend over and tuck under the leaves, so can’t see them unless you flip up a leaf for a peek!

Oh, let’s deal with the ‘leaf’ thing right now… trilliums don’t have leaves, they have enlarged bracts. Yep, whole other thing from a leaf, part of the flower base actually. But they sure look like leaves, so you’re forgiven if you call the structures by an improper botanical term.

And of course we all know how it is illegal to pick a trillium… not! If it is growing inside a provincial park you may not, should not, will not pick a trillium (or any other flower) as such gathering is forbidden by law. However, step outside the park boundary and trilliums are defenceless.

In 2008 a bylaw was proposed to give trilliums legal protection, but that didn’t get approved when questions could not be answered in regards to what agency would enforce this law. And indeed, how could it be monitored and enforced? So, no, there is no legal protection to save trilliums from being picked, transplanted or stepped on.

But consider this: it takes a trillium about eight years of growth before it has enough energy to produce a blossom. Each year it grows a little bit bigger, those fancy bracts collecting sunlight and converting it to sugars, this energy being stored in the deep-rooted bulbs. Then in year eight… BOOM… out comes a blossom!

And then you pick it for a 30-minute bouquet.

Seems like a re-think is needed before plucking a handful of trilliums. And know also that when the stalk is broken the roots no longer gain food and the plant dies. Eight years of effort snuffed out, just like that.

So how did our glorious white trillium get to be so famous, ranking as a provincial emblem alongside the white pine and amethyst as ambassadors of our province?

It began as a national program, when an effort was made to mark the gravesites of World War One fallen soldiers with a common symbol. Didn’t catch on as a federal program, but in 1935 the province of Ontario claimed the species.

You may notice that trilliums often grow in tight clusters, with several stems growing in close proximity to each other. This is because of ants.

In late summer and autumn, woodland ants seek out trillium seeds. The seeds have an oily coating that tastes oh-so-good to ants, so they gather up all they can find and take the seeds into their underground caverns for storage. Once the seeds are ‘licked clean’ the leftover seed is garbage and is thrown in a green bin chamber of the ant colony.

After two years these cast away seeds germinate and begin to grow upwards from the underground ant tunnels. Thus you will see several stems emerging as a cluster. Without the ants, it is very difficult for trilliums to distribute their seeds.

So grab your camera and/or cell phone (and maybe a head net) and take a hike in the hardwoods! The trilliums are waiting there to cheer you up!