trillium cyanotype

Trillium (also known as wakerobin, birthroot, and sometimes wood lily) is a genus of flowering plant species, part of the family Melantheaceae. Plants of this genus are perennial herbs growing from rhizomes. Trillium species are native to temperate regions of North America with the greatest species diversity found in the southern Appalachian mountains. Before being assigned to the family Melantheaceae in 1998, the Trillium genus was erroneously placed in the family Liliaceae, which by 1981 had grown to about 280 genera and 4,000 species.

Trillium have been described as a “spring ephemeral” plant, meaning they emerge quickly in the spring and then die, leaving only their underground parts (roots, rhizomes, and bulbs) after a short period of growth and reproduction. Their short life cycles are timed to exploit a brief span in which resources are freely available. Trillium are subject to recurrent human disturbance and have developed this strategy in order to take advantage of high levels of sunlight that reach the forest floor before the formation of a canopy by woody plants. 

Picking parts off a trillium plant can kill it even if the rhizome is left undisturbed. Some species of trillium are listed as threatened or endangered and collecting these species may be illegal. They are extremely fragile and picking them seriously injures the plant by preventing bracts from producing food for the next year, effectively killing the plant and ensuring none will grow in its place. Trillium is considered myrmecochorous which means that ants are their primary agent of seed dispersal. Ants are attracted to the elaiosomes on the seeds and collect them and transport them away from the parent plant.


1: Case Jr., Frederick W. (2002). Trillium. In Flora of North America Editorial Committee (ed.). Flora of North America North of Mexico (FNA)26. New York and Oxford – via eFloras.orgMissouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MOHarvard University Herbaria, Cambridge, MA.

2: Liang, Songyun; Soukup, Victor G. TrilliumFlora of China24 – via eFloras.orgMissouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MOHarvard University Herbaria, Cambridge, MA.

3: Brown, FH. (10 April 2013). “Trillium is the flower no one should pick,” The Reflector, WA.

4: Nuffer, B. (April 2009). “Red Trillium”New York State Conservationist. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

5: O’Connor, R. P.; Penskar, M. R. (2004). “Special plant abstract for Trillium undulatum (painted trillium)” (PDF). Lansing, MI, USA: Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

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