Trillium recurvatum


Trillium recurvatum

Common name:

Purple trillium

Hardiness: 4 to 9 in part sun to light shade

Mature height: 12 to 18 inches

Mature spread: 6 to 8 inches

Classification: Herbaceous perennial

Landscape Use: Great for shade/woodland garden as spring groundcover because of easily spreading rhizomes; plant disappear in the summer; mixes easily with ferns and wildflowers

Ornamental Characteristics: Mottled, spear-shaped leaves; sepals reflex down toward the stem; maroon petals form an erect egg shape

Take a springtime walk into the dense woodland forests of southeast Missouri and you get captivated by the subtle colonies of trillium. Their stunning trifoliate leaves, sepals and petals are so uniform among every individual, it is almost unnatural in appearance. Whenever springtime approaches, many southeast Missourians can be seen scratching around in the leaf litter for signs of trilliums, a true harbinger of the season.

One of the most familiar species in southeast Missouri is Trillium recurvatum, often sanguinely called bloody butcher, or more simply purple wakerobin or purple trillium. It can be found from Wisconsin and Michigan, south through Iowa to Texas, Louisiana and Alabama, and east to North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Trillium recurvatum grows in mesic deciduous forests and tall grass prairie savannah. It is an excellent species choice when developing woodland gardens or a naturalized area. It spreads from underground rhizomes, but is not annoyingly aggressive. Many gardening texts unfairly treat this trillium as a second-class citizen compared to its cousins Trillium sessile and T. flexipes.

Among plant taxonomists, trilliums have been classified among the Liliaceae, Melanthiaceae or Trilliaceae. Like a meeting among trillium addicts arguing over the correct identification of a wild patch of trilliums, the discussion among taxonomists may continue for a while.

Photos courtesy of Sven Svenson.

Unlike most plants among their lily-like cousins, trilliums have netted rather than parallel leaf venation. Purple trillium gets the epithet of recurvatum because its sepals curve downward toward the ground. Blooming April and May, its dark brownish maroon flower is suspended vertically on a pedicel, having three clawed petals, six carpels and three recurved sepals appearing stalklessly atop the middle of the mottled three-leaf whorl. Because their growing season is short, trillium seedlings may require up to 10 years before they reach flowering size.

The hosta-like, dark green leaves (to 4 inches long) are evenly spaced, rounded to lanceolate, narrowing to short petioles. The aboveground parts of trilliums are scapes with three large, leaf-like bracts; the true leaves are reduced to underground, papery coverings around the rhizomes. The rhizomes will spread, forming vegetative colonies.

Trillium seeds are dispersed by ants, and perhaps by vespid wasps or mammals. Trillium seeds have a fleshy organ called an elaiosome that attracts ants. The ants extract the seeds from the decaying ovary and take them to their nest, where they eat the elaiosomes and put the seeds in their garbage. The seeds then germinate in a rich growing medium in rich forest. However, this cohabitation will not result in an ant infestation in a garden setting. When done carefully, trilliums can be propagated by division when plants are dormant in late summer or early fall.

Trilliums enjoy clay soil that is slightly alkaline and will respond well to mild to modest fertilization. They do well in field soil that has a decent amount of organic matter; however, trillium does not grow well in peat. They are known to be considerably drought hardy, so in a garden they would not need too much attention in regards to watering.

The only element known to decimate populations of trilliums is deer. In areas with high deer populations this plant might be difficult to defend.

T. recurvatum is a great native spring perennial for consideration in any garden. Even though it has a short bloom season, a good, established colony is mesmerizing in the first weeks of spring.

David Schnoes, biology:wildlife management student

Corey Jones, agribusiness:horticulture student
Sven E. Svenson, horticulture professor
Department of Agriculture, Southeast Missouri State University
Cape Girardeau, Mo.