Sunday, March 25, 2012

Trilliums - a Georgia specialty

Georgia holds a special honor when it comes to trilliums: Georgia has more indigenous species than any other state – 22 species as of the last count with more being considered.  Trilliums are fairly uncommon plants in general and are much cherished by native plant lovers.   In undisturbed places there can be thousands of individual plants.  However, most of us have a chance to see only a few here and there.  I found 3 on our new property in 2003.  Over the last nine years, a few more have popped up, no doubt from seed sown long ago.  It takes at least 7 years for a seed to become a flowering plant.

Trillium catesbaei
Trilliums are so named because so many of the parts come in “threes”:  3 leaves, 3 sepals, and 3 petals are all visible to even the most novice of observers.    The plants grow from underground rhizomes that gradually increase in size each year.  Trilliums are “ephemeral” plants, usually fading in the hot weather and then remaining dormant until spring.  Seeds form in fruit structures called “berries”; each of the small brown seeds is attached to a creamed-colored eliasome which is attractive to ants.  Ants gather these seeds so that they can eat the nutritious eliasome, helping to disperse the seeds in the process.

One of the best experts on Georgia trilliums is Tom Patrick with GADNR (Georgia Department of Natural Resources).  He spoke to our native plant society in 2010 and provided a wonderful handout.  Most of this information is pulled from that resource.  

Tom divides the 22 species into two groups: the Wakerobins and the Toadshades.  These two groups are distinctly different in appearance so this separation makes sense.  He has further divisions within those two groups; if you want more information, please use the link above to read further as he deserves all the credit for that work. 

Wakerobin trilliums have uniformly green leaves with flowers on stalks that either hold the flower above the leaves or let it fall beneath the leaves.  Other sources note these as “pedicellate” trilliums, a reference to the stalk (pedicel) of the flower.  Some of these have white flowers that fade to pink. These are the twelve trilliums in this group:

Trillium catesbaei - Catesby's Trillium, Bashful Wakerobin, Rose Trillium.  
Trillium erectum - Red Trillium, Stinking Benjamin.
Trillium flexipes - White Trillium, Bentstalk Trillium.  
Trillium grandiflorum - Large-flowered Trillium, White Trillium.
Trillium persistens - Persistent Trillium.
Trillium pusillum - Dwarf Trillium.
Trillium rugelii - Southern Nodding Trillium.  
Trillium simile - Sweet White Trillium, Jeweled Trillium.  
Trillium sulcatum - Southern Red Trillium, Barksdale's Trillium, Rainbow Trillium. (This trillium was discovered and named by Tom Patrick!)
Trillium undulatum - Painted Trillium.  
Trillium vaseyi - Vasey's Trillium.  
Trillium sp. "Amicalola Trillium" – this is in the process of being named as a unique species.

Trillium flexipes
Trillium grandiflorum

Trillium pusillum

Trillium rugelii

Trillium erectum
Trillium undulatum

Toadshade trilliums have mottled leaves with sessile flowers; sessile flowers have no stalks, they sit directly on top of the leaves. Other sources simply refer to these as “sessile” trilliums. These are the 10 trilliums in this group:

Trillium cuneatum - Sweet Betsy,  Purple Toadshade.  
Trillium decipiens - Chattahoochee Trillium, Deceptive Trillium.  
Trillium decumbens - Trailing Trillium, Decumbent Trillium.  
Trillium discolor - Pale Yellow Trillium. 
Trillium lancifolium - Lanceleaf Trillium. 
Trillium ludovicianum - Louisiana Trillium.  
Trillium luteum - Yellow Trillium.  
Trillium maculatum - Spotted Trillium.  
Trillium reliquum - Relict Trillium.  
Trillium underwoodii - Underwood's Trillium.

Trillium cuneatum is by far the most common and widespread of the toadshade trilliums - even more so than indicated by the USDA map as my county's populations are not represented.  There is quite a bit of variance in color forms in the species - most petals are deep burgundy but some can be almost green.  Even the sepals can vary from green to burgundy.  Occasionally, individuals with multiple leaves have been found - I've seen as many as 12 leaves on a single plant.  The degree of mottling is also variable; I have seen leaves that are almost entirely silver, with very few spots.

Non-standard color, Trillium cuneatum
Standard color, Trillium cuneatum


Trillium discolor and Trillium luteum may both seem to resemble green forms of T. cuneatum, but they have distinct features that separate them.  I love the unique lemon-y fragrance of T. luteum.

Multi-leaves, Trillium cuneatum
Trillium luteum

Trillium decumbens
Trillium lancifolium


Pictorial: Mount Cuba Center of Delaware has a beautiful publication with pictures and descriptions of about 30 species found in the southeastern and northeastern United States.  

Book: Frederick and Roberta Case’s Trilliums, published in 1997, is considered one of the best.

I hope that you have the opportunity to see and enjoy some of these special Georgia wildflowers this spring.  


  1. ..."Visible to even the most novice of observers". Thanks for being so considerate, but you could have just said "even Jeff in VA should be able to spot this one".

  2. They are beautiful, I can see why they're so popular. I wonder how common they are here in VA, even with all our gardening, hiking, running, and mountain biking...unfortunately we've never seen any.

  3. Georgia peaches. Now Georgia trilliums. You live in a great state.

  4. How beautiful Ellen. Thanks for sharing. Hope to hear from you soon ~ Brenda Addington

  5. You're not kidding that they're a Georgia specialty Ellen! Great post highlighting these beauties.

  6. Lucky you, to have so many native trilliums available. I'm one of those people who sometimes find one here or there popping up on my property, and I always feel especially blessed when it happens. -Jean

  7. On a recent hunt for ramps (a special native onion/garlic-type plant that is hard to find, only appears briefly - and is delicious), I discovered at least 3 types of trillium growing in the same rich mountainside soil. Gorgeous! Thanks for the info on them

  8. I never knew they were rare. We have thousands and thousands on our property.