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Woodland wildflowers are important components of healthy forests, adding beauty, biodiversity, food and in some cases wildlife habitat. Two of Prince Edward Island’s most treasured wildflowers are trilliums. Both the Painted and the Nodding trillium are perennial wildflowers, often occupying the same forest site. As with all of our woodland wildflowers, they respond poorly to picking. You can do damage to both the plant and the forest by picking these flowers.
The name “trillium” comes from the Latin for “three”, so these beauties are aptly named. A single stem divides into three triangular leaves. There are also three petals on each flower. The Painted trillium has a white, purple-veined flower on top. The flower of the Nodding Trillium ranges from white to pale pink and, as you can guess from its name, droops beneath the triangle of leaves. Both species grow between 20-40 cm (8-16″) tall and flower from late May into June.
Growing trilliums is nowhere near as intimidating as it has been made out to be. Both species grow quite well from seed, though they can take six years or longer to flower. Always ask permission from the landowner before gathering seed. As with any plant, take great care that you are not improving one area while impoverishing another. You should never take more than 10% of the seed in an area, and try not to go back to the same seed source year after year. Harvest seed from large, healthy plants in areas with heavy crops. Collecting trillium seed is a rewarding task. Both species have beautiful bright red berries and stand out in stark contrast to the green of the forest in September. It is as though there are rubies sprinkled throughout the forest. Remember that the seed of the Nodding trillium will be hanging down. Trillium seeds in the wild have a very interesting life history. As the fruit matures, it splits open and the clusters of seed fall to the ground. The seed coverings attract ants, which unwittingly wind up “planting” the seeds around the forest.
Trilliums can probably be increased at little cost by spreading some seed in the leaf litter in suitable forests that have no seed sources. Planting the seed in a nursery or garden bed works well. After collecting, simply plant the seed shallowly every 5 cm (2″) and mulch with leaf mould or compost. The first year a small root grows and in the second year a small leaf will give you a sign that things are happening. You can transplant during the third spring, being careful to dig deep and not disturb the roots. They should be planted out in suitable habitat, rich woodlands with moist soil. The Nodding trillium seems to tolerate wetter soil than the Painted, though neither like standing water.
As both are woodland wildflowers, the most important conservation measure is to maintain forest cover. While they can be found after a forest is clearcut, their lifespan tends to be limited once the site is exposed to full sun and begins to dry out. Since so much of the Island has been cleared for agriculture at one time, there are many areas that even if they have reverted to forest still lack seed sources for trilliums and other less-common wildflowers.
There is a chance that the Purple trillium (trillium erectum) is on Prince Edward Island, but we have no confirmed records. It is known from rich hardwood slopes on the mainland, and could be in hardwood areas here. If anyone sees a trillium with dark purple or maroon petals, please make careful notes of the location and call the Island Nature Trust.