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Trillium sp.

Melanthiaceae

The genus Trillium includes native herbaceous perennials in the Melanthiaceae but for many years was considered in the Liliaceae. The genus includes about 50 species with some in almost every state and some in Asia. The plants have only a whorl of three leaves on the stem, which arises from a short, stocky rhizome. The leaves are simple, whorled, and have parallel veins, some call the leaves bracts. The inflorescence is a single terminal flower. The flowers are perfect and regular, with three green (sometimes splashed with red) sepals, three petals, and six stamens with long anthers. The ovary is superior, and the fruit is a globose berry. All Trillium species in our area are early spring to late winter plants of well-drained soils, flowering from February through April.

Note: this is a plant with three leaves only and thus the word for that is trifoliate. Some people and even some on-line sources mix this up with the word for a plant with compound leaves with three leaflets as in poison ivy and trifoliate orange. The correct word for that is trifoliolate. You are welcome for the addition of new words to your vocabulary.

Lots of common names across the US for trillium, tri flower, birthroot, birthwort, stinking Benjamin (apparently this a corruption of stinking benzoin), corn lily, mooseflower. Much hunger (from the eating of the leaves), three-flowered nightshade, wood lily, bloody butcher (this name supposedly from the smell of the flowers like a butcher block). Wakerobin is another common name that I assumed this was a northern United States name for Trillium since it would be in flower when robins returned from the south after spending the winter there. I had also been known to say that a better name for these plants in Louisiana was goodbye robin since Trilliums would flower as the robins left to migrate northward. Was I shocked to find out that some sources state that the real use of the wake robin name was tied to its use as an aphrodisiac and an old name for penis was robin.

Trilliums are myrmecochorous, with ants as agents of seed dispersal. Ants are attracted to the elaiosomes on the seeds and collect them and transport them away from the parent plant. Trillium leaves are edible and the roots have been used medicinally.

The genus Trillium in Louisiana includes five species with three very similar (foetidissimum, gracile, and ludovicianum) and the fourth (recurvatum) and fifth (texanum) species very distinct. When I first started in plant taxonomy, foetidissimum, gracile, and ludovicianum were all considered to be the species sessile but research by the late Dr Freeman, separated the Louisiana plants of sessile into three species. I remember making my major professor, Dr. John Thieret, laugh when I created a new scientific name for the non-flowering plants of sessile and called them Trillium sterile.

Texas wakerobin (Trillium texana aka Trillium pusillum var texana) is the only species in the state with white petals and also the only one with pedicellate flowers. It is rare in the state with only a few locations in Caddo Parish.

The other distinct Trillium species is recurvatum and often called bloody butcher. It has leaves with petioles and sepals that are reflexed or recurved in the sessile flower. It is reported from eight parishes (Caddo, Caldwell, Claiborne, Jackson, Lincoln, Union, and Winn).

The other three species are similar in having sessile flowers and leaves and are separated by how the anthers dehisce, the shape of the ovary, the color of the petals, and distribution. Mississippi River wakerobin (Trillium foetidissimum) has anthers that dehisce introrsely, stamens one-third or less the height of the ovary, and erect stigmas. Perhaps most important, it is known only from east of the Mississippi River in the Florida Parishes (East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Washington, and West Feliciana).

The other two species (Louisiana wakerobin, Trillium ludovicianum, and Sabine wakerobin, Trillium gracile) have sessile leaves and flowers and are very similar. Both are found only west of the Mississippi River.

Louisiana wakerobin has anthers that dehisce laterally, a six-angled ovary, and green to yellowish-green petals with a purple base; sometimes the petals are all purple. It is reported from 16 parishes (Allen, Caddo, Caldwell, Catahoula, De Soto, Evangeline, Franklin, Grant, LaSalle, Natchitoches, Ouachita, Rapides, Sabine, Vernon, Webster, and Winn). Flowers February to early April and often growing in dense clumps.

Sabine wakerobin (T. gracile) has anthers that dehisce introrsely, a three-angled ovary, and purple petals. It is reported from ten parishes (Calcasieu, Catahoula, De Soto, Evangeline, Grant, Natchitoches, Rapides, Red River, Sabine, and Vernon). Flowers late March through May and usually not in clumps.

No Trillium on Allen Acres but some nearby in the National Forest. Photos today by Bette Kaufsman and the late Ken Wilson.