May 14, 2012

Purple Trillium: A flower by any other name...

By Eric D'Aleo, Naturalist

As I walked along the old railroad bed behind my house last week I saw one of my favorite wildflowers reaching up through the duff and dry leaves with a single burgundy bloom. It was a Purple Trillium… or maybe I should call it by one of its other names, but then I started to think of all the different names that I knew for this plant, which got me wondering why it has so many.

What's in a name? William Shakespeare asked this question in the play Romeo and Juliet, to which his answer was “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Although I tend to agree with his implication that an object’s nature is more important than its name, it is obvious Shakespeare never encountered Purple Trillium in his native England, for this early spring perennial wildflower has a plethora of names that describe the different parts of its nature. It’s referred to as Red Trillium, Purple Trillium, and Wake Robin due to the maroon color of its bloom, but it has also been called Stinking Benjamin, Stinking Willie, Wet Dog Trillium, and Ill-Scented Trillium because of its pungent odor that is occasionally described as similar to the smell of a wet dog. There are over a dozen other obscure names for this flower that may be due to its widespread distribution in the eastern United States. How the flower got those names is anyone’s guess.

Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum) is one of 30 trillium species that grow throughout North America. The name trillium comes from the Latin word tres, meaning three, which refers to the fact that many of the plants parts are in groups of three: three leaves, three petals, three sepals, three stamens.

Purple Trillium is found in the eastern part of North America from Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Quebec south to Georgia, and as far west as Tennessee, Illinois and northern Michigan. It grows in rich deciduous forests with Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), American Basswood (Tilia americana), or oak varieties (Quercus spp.) as the dominant canopy trees. This wildflower prefers moist soil that is neutral to slightly acidic and likes dappled sunlight or light shade during the spring, followed by shade in the summer.

A mature plant can grow from six to twenty inches tall with a spread of up to twelve inches. Between April and June there is a solitary nodding flower with three petals that blooms for about two to three weeks. Because the petals of the flowers have the color of rotting flesh and exude a similar odor, they probably attract flesh flies, carrion beetles, and similar insects, which pollinate the flower. After pollination a single red fruit forms and matures in the summer. As the fruit matures, it splits open and the clusters of seeds fall to the ground. The seed coverings attract ants, which unwittingly wind up "planting" the seeds around the forest. If the seed takes root in “good soil” it may grow and mature to produce seeds of its own in five to ten years. However, the root system of the flower is also fibrous and rhizomatous so clonal plants can be produced from the rhizomes and may be found in small clusters.

The root of Purple Trillium has also been given the name Birth Root, Beth Root, and Bath Root because it was used as a traditional medicine by Native American’s to aid in child birth, restrict bleeding after childbirth, and for menstrual pain. The whole plant was also made into a poultice used to treat tumors, inflammation, and ulcers. Research has shown that the root contains steroidal saponins that have hormonal effects on the body and are now being used in gynecological and obstetric medicine. However this plant should not be taken during pregnancy except under direct medical supervision.

So call it what you will, I guess it really doesn’t matter to me, because regardless of its name it’s still one of my favorite spring wildflowers.

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