I’ll have to admit that this past winter has not been so bad here in my part of central South Carolina. It hasn’t gotten real cold, and there has been no snow or ice. I’m glad to see the sun coming up earlier now, which always gives us a clear sign that we’re moving from winter into spring. Here is a fine example of a native plant that is making a spring appearance, too.
It starts taking off in early or mid-April, and what a beauty it is. It is, of course, one of our native trilliums, a group of herbaceous plants related to lilies. There are about 50 different trillium species in North America, and some additional ones occur in Asia.
All have several features in common, including an underground rhizome. The flowering, above-ground stem will bear a single flower. “Three” seems to be the magic word with these plants, as its parts occur in 3’s. (Linnaeus named this group “Trillium” in reference to this.) Three leaves occur in a ring just below the flower. These leaves are technically considered "bracts" by botanists, but never mind all that.
Depending on the species, the flower may be at the end of a slender stalk, or it may be sessile, and without a stalk. The stalked flowers may stick straight up, or variously lean to one side. (One of our species, Trillium catesbyi, has a flower that hangs down, like it’s hiding. It’s called “Bashful trillium”.) All trillium flowers bear three sepals, three petals, six stamens, and eventually form a somewhat fleshy pod containing a number of seeds. The seeds of trilliums are interesting, in that they bear unusual, oily structures, called "elaiosomes", that are attractive to insects, including ants. In fact, many species of trilliums (including this week's mystery plant) are known to have seeds that ants like to carry around, eventually chewing off the elaiosomes, and thus dispersing the seeds.
Our mystery plant occurs in rich woods, often on soils derived from limestone, or similar substrates. In the whole world, it can be found only along the Savannah River drainage from the western end of North Carolina downstream to about Augusta, and on both sides of the river. The leaves are broadly egg-shaped and mottled, or spotted, with various shades of green. The petals are strap-shaped, and pale yellow, sometimes creamy yellow. If the air is warm enough, the flowers may give off a faint, sweet smell ... some people say the scent is like cloves.
Different trillium species occur practically throughout the Southeast, except for peninsular Florida. They grow in a range of habitats, and it is likely that there are one or more species in your area. Some trilliums are quite rare, and increasingly more and more populations are threatened by urbanization and habitat deterioration, often after the effects of wild hogs or invasive plants such as English ivy and Japanese honeysuckle.
An excellent source for more information is Trilliums, by Frederick and Roberta Case, published in 1997 by the Timber Press.