In the Garden: Wakerobin

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By Charles Kidder

Trillium (Courtesy J.C. Raulston Arboretum)
Trillium (Courtesy J.C. Raulston Arboretum)

It’s been a long winter, one that seemed reluctant to loosen its grip. We’re all hoping for warmer weather and looking for signs of spring in nature. What could be better than to find a plant with the delightful name of Wakerobin?

Wakerobin (or wake-robin, or wake robin) is one of the many common names for various trillium species. The genus Trillium consists of about four dozen species found across the temperate regions of Asia and North America, the name coming from the three-part flowers, and also recognizing the plant’s trio of leaves. Strictly speaking, they’re bracts, but they have chlorophyll, and indeed function like leaves. And that’s how I’ll refer to them.

As spring ephemerals, trilliums are perennials that emerge early in deciduous woodlands, taking advantage of abundant sunlight before the trees leaf out. By early summer, the trillium’s annual cycle is complete, the leaves begin to wither, and the plant disappears until next spring. If you want to put other plants around trilliums, be sure to mark their location before you start digging.

All trillium species have a central stalk emerging from the ground, reaching 6 inches to 20 inches in height and topped by a trio of “leaves.” Trilliums are divided into two major groupings: the pedicellate trilliums’ flowers are held on a short stalk (or pedicel) either just above the leaves or just below them. Owing to their placement, along with their typical white, pink or red coloration, these flowers tend to be more showy than the sessile trilliums. In the latter group, the flowers squat at the center of the foliage and don’t appear to be fully open. Flowers in the sessile trilliums are generally burgundy to dusky purple, although one species sports greenish yellow blooms. The sessile trilliums make up for their more subtle flowers with interesting foliage, typically displaying varying degrees of mottling.

An interesting quirk of young trilliums: many start out life as “monilliums,” with only one leaf. It may take them several years to develop the three-part structure, so be sure not to mistake them for weeds.

Exploring the woods to find trilliums can be fun, but what about finding some for your garden? Since some species are somewhat rare, don’t collect them from the wild unless you have permission from the landowner. (And don’t assume that if plants are growing in the National Forest that you are the landowner.) When collecting in the “wild”—most likely a friend’s woodlot—take only a few plants. The idea is to build up your own garden’s population by natural reproduction, rather than by wiping out a native colony. For most of us, however, we’ll need to find a source for buying trilliums, especially if we want several varieties. Most nurseries don’t carry trilliums, since they are only showy for two or three months of the year. Moreover, their seeds can take two years to germinate, and plants then require four to seven years before flowering. Not a recipe for quick profits; therefore, you’ll likely have to seek out trilliums at specialty mail-order outlets.

One such is Lazy S’S Farm Nursery in Barboursville, their current online catalog showing 16 trillium offerings. Here are a few, along with their often-intriguing common names:

Trillium catesbaei (Bashful Wakerobin)—a native further south, but fully hardy here; white or pink blossoms fade to pink, 8” to 18” tall;

T. erectum (Purple Trillium, Stinking Benjamin—reddish-grape flowers, a relatively “huge” plant, 16”-24” tall, a prolific seeder if happy;

T. grandiflorum (White Trillium)—abundant farther north and into Canada, but it comes south along the Appalachians; conspicuous white flowers turn pink with age; can form huge patches in the wild;

All the above species are pedicellate trilliums; the ones that follow are sessile:

T. recurvatum (Wood Lily, Bloody Butcher)—purple flowers sit atop the foliage; spreads slowly by the rhizome;

T. luteum (Yellow Trillium)—pale greenish-yellow flowers with a citrus scent over mottled foliage; prefers alkaline soils but does okay on slightly acidic ones.

Another purveyor of fine trilliums is Plant Delights Nursery near Raleigh. They carry 22 types that at first glance appear to be pretty pricey. But remember: they’re raised from seed and take several years to reach marketable size. One of their pedicellate trillium offerings is T. sulcatum (Sulcate Toadshade). You have to love the name Toadshade. Is the plant sufficiently large to shade only a toad? Wine-red flowers perch on top of foliage that can reach 20 inches in height. Most of the Plant Delights trilliums have sessile flowers, however, and you’d likely be willing to buy them for the foliage alone. Trillium underwoodii is particularly striking, with dark, medium and light green “checkerboard” patches on the leaves and a silver streak down the center. More subtle, T. ‘Jefferson Silver’ has maroon flowers sitting atop silvery foliage. (In case you’re wondering, Thomas Jefferson has no direct connection with this variety; it was originally found near Jefferson, Texas.) Although Plant Delights Nursery is primarily a mail-order business, they do welcome visitors four times a year to their open houses; the first weekend in March happens to be an open time, so fire up the car and head south.

Although a few trilliums prefer alkaline soil and others are native to very acidic conditions, they should all do fine in our soils. Most are native to deciduous woodlands, and that’s the condition they’ll prefer in your garden. They’re happiest with consistently moist, humus-rich soils with good drainage. A good water supply will allow them to keep their foliage later into the season.

And if you wonder how trilliums move around your garden: ants. Trillium seeds have a nutrient-rich structure attached, the elaiosome, that ants are fond of. They carry the seed to their nests, feed the elaiosome to their larvae, and discard the rest. The result: happy ants, and a new trillium is planted.

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