Stars of the Spring Woodland Garden: Trillium

While I might rightfully be described as a gardener of many plants, master of none – I always enjoy a garden or gardener with a dedicated collection of some special plant or plant group. Photo: A mature bloom of Western trillium Trillium ovatum, which is often snow-white when first open and then ages to pink and purple.

I have recently enjoyed thoroughly several visits to the home garden of Mike Thiede in Paradise to witness the seasonal unfolding of his collection of specimen Trillium. Photo: The woodland entry to Mike Thiede’s Paradise garden.

Trillium – I like to say the name – to hear the name, it has a feel. And this wonderful genus of woodland plants have flowers, foliage and form to match their name. Photo: Above, a patch of Trillium albidum in bud under a ponderosa pine, fawn lilies bloom nearby. Below, the same patch in bloom a few weeks later.

The name Trillium, with its latin root meaning “three”, refers to the plants’ strong and very consistent structure: Trillium have three opposite – often handsome – broad and ovate leaves above which rise their generally single stem (sometimes there is no stem between flower and leaf whorl) bearing a sculptural flower of three strong sepals staggered symmetrically behind three strong petals surrounding open and often showy stamens. The genus includes approximately 40+ species and subspecies of primarily North American origin – although a few are found in Asia. Photo: Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum).

In early spring, you can enjoy native trillium carpeting lowland islands off the coast of South Carolina, you can find them in the woodlands and mountains of Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Vermont and New Hampshire to name a few. And at least 6 varieties of trillium are native to California. Photo: A mixed patch of trillium in bloom at Mike Thiede’s.

One traditional common name for trillium is trinity flower, referring to the three-part structure. An eastern species of trillium, T. sessile, which is characterized by its flower growing right out of the leaves and having no stalk of its own, is known as toad trillium. Another common name for the entire group is wake-robin, reportedly because many varieties bloom so early in spring that they help to wake the robins and entice them to return to our woods and gardens after their winter absence. Photo: Trillium cuneatum.

Mike’s collection illustrates this early spring tendency nicely as his earliest plants are up and showing flower buds by the end of January. The vagaries of weather depending, his earliest trillium are opening by Valentine’s day and his later varieties are still blooming come early summer. “This year’s late winter water seems to have staggered the bloom time far more than usual in my garden,” Mike allowed. In higher elevations, trillium can be found blooming right through summer. My family and I enjoyed a nice show of them near Mount Hood, Oregon one mid-July. Photo: Trillium kurbayashi.

Due to loss of habitat, as well as pressure and fragmentation of their habitat, many trillium are listed by state and federal agencies as endangered or threatened. Because picking their flowers can harm their ability to produce the following the year, it is not advised to pick the flowers and in some areas it is illegal. Trillium plants should not be collected from the wild. Photo: Trillium erecta.

Mike is an avid plant researcher and propagator and his trillium collection features more than 25 distinct species or sub-species of trillium, his individual plants number in the hundreds. He has been experimenting with trillium for more than 10 years. While Mike simply enjoys interesting plants, he explains that “part of the reason for the collection is for hybridizing, especially the T. sessile group from the central and eastern part of the country. West coast trillium are much larger and more vigorous but prefer summer full summer drought, east coast types tolerate summer water so they keep their foliage much longer into the season. I hope to hybridize a more vigorous trillium that could adapt to a wider range of garden conditions, including being able to take water throughout the season.” Photo: Trillium luteum above, Mike Thiede and one of his assistant gardeners in the garden.

Mike’s sloping woodland, creekside garden in Paradise is a perfect spot for trillium, which prefer woodland conditions: meaning some shade, soil is high in organic matter and which drains well, moist in spring and drier in summer/fall when the plants will go dormant. Photo: Trillium sp. opening in the soft spring sunlight.

Trillium make great spring woodland garden additions under pines or oaks. They can spread by seed (which is ant dispersed) or vegetatively, so that given the right conditions, over time, the plants naturalize into nice mass colonies. Trillium range in size from the petite snow trillium (Trillium nivale)- which is a very early bloomer and only about 2 -4 inches high, to Trillium grandiflorum the flowers on which are more than 3 inches across. The genus ranges in color from pure pure white, to pale mottled pink, to deep burgundy, and even an acid yellow. Photo: A large flowered Trillium albidum Mike observed in Nevada County this spring. Photo courtesy of Mike Thiede.

Trillium are best planted in late fall, and best divided when they are dormant from late summer on. While they can be grown from seed, it is a lengthy process. If you do encounter some nice looking plants for purchase this late in spring, as I did last year at a local California Native Plant Society chapter sale, Mike recommends leaving the plants in the pots and sinking the whole pot into partly-shaded woodland soil until fall when they will transplant more readily.” Mike also recommends a balanced fertilizer in spring around bloom time. Photo: Trillium sp. in a soft mottled pink.

For further reading, Mike recommends:

“Trilliums” by Frederick W. Case, Jr. and Roberta Case, Timber Press 1997.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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2 Responses

  1. Avatar Virginia says:

    I moved to Western WA in the 1970s for a few years. Never had seen Trilliums until then. I cullivated them. Agressive against wild blackberry to allow my beautiful Trilliums come up to greet me each year. They are lovely!

    Thanks for the photos and column.

    • Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

      Thanks Virginia – they are plants I just love – especially to come across them in woodland settings – hmmm.