Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Red Trilliums

© Dave Spier
Red Trilliums (Trillium erectum) are attractive woodland wildflowers native to Upstate New York, but admire them from a distance.  They have many nicknames, but “stinking Benjamin” and “wet-dog trillium” will clue you to their ill scent.  Both the liver-red color and bad smell are nature’s design to attract carrion flies to aid in pollination.
Trilliums grow with three broad, diamond-shaped leaves and three green, leaf-like sepals alternating with three colored petals.  This plant belongs to the lily family, hence the name tri-lillium, or three-part lily.  Other common names for this species include Purple Trillium, Wake-robin, Rule-of-three, and in Maine, Wild-piney.
Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants book indicates that young leaves can be added to salads or boiled and eaten like spinach, but it’s too late for this year.  After the flowers open, the leaves turn bitter.  Another source I consulted warns that “the leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals and crystal raphide, and should not be consumed by humans.”  Either way, this species is seldom abundant enough to be used as a food source, and removing the leaves will stress or possibly kill the plant.  It takes woodland wildflowers an average of seven years to reach maturity and begin flowering due to the lack of sunlight in the shade of tall trees.  New York State ranks the Red Trillium as “Exploitably Vulnerable.” 
Berries and roots are mildly poisonous, although you might see birds and wild mammals eating the red fruits later in the year (but remember, they also eat Poison Ivy berries).
A generalized range map can be found on the USDA website.

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