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Trilliums

June is peak wildflower season on PEI.  Over the next month, I’ll show you some of my favourites ranging from showy to subtle to strange.  Let’s start with showy: Trilliums!


Photo 1: Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) is the most common of PEI's two confirmed species.

As their name suggests, Trilliums are plants of threes: three leaves, three petals, and three sepals (structures that protected the flower bud) between the petals. We have two common woodland species and one that I’m always on the lookout for.

 

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum, Photo 1) is our most common species and can be found in mixedwood and hardwood forests across the Island.  Its striking flower is hard to miss, with bright white petals that look like they’ve been painted with pink near the base.  Where you find one, you’ll usually see more; there may be scattered individuals around the forest floor, or small groups of a few flowers each.  Painted Trilliums can take up to seven years to produce their first flower, so – while they are beautiful – these slow-growing plants shouldn’t be picked. 


Photo 2: Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum) on PEI.

Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum, Photo 2) is slightly less common on PEI, but can still be found across the province.  It does grow in the same types of forests as Painted, but I see it more often in riparian forests, closer to streams and rivers.  Nodding Trillium flowers hang below the plant’s three leaves and so can be easily missed unless you’re specifically looking for them.  It’s worth the effort to get down on your hands and knees to look under the leaves for this lovely flower (plus you never know what else you may see when you’re down there!).


Photo 3: Red Trillium (Trillium erectum) on PEI. This species is known from only one location, in a Charlottetown-area woodland where it is likely a garden escape.

Red Trillium (Trillium erectum, Photo 3) is common on the mainland but not here on PEI.  There is one population in a Charlottetown-area hardwood stand that is almost certainly a legacy of introduced plants.  John MacSwain’s 1907 The Flora of Prince Edward Island notes that this species was introduced in a Charlottetown garden, and Red Trillium was subsequently listed as a garden plant and not part of PEI’s native flora in David Erskine’s 1960 work.  That said, I live in (perhaps unrealistic) hope of finding a native population of this beautiful plant in a PEI forest. If you’ve seen it here, I’d love to know.

 

Once any of these Trillium species is pollinated, the flower becomes a surprisingly large, red fruit. Inside the fruit are multiple seeds, each with a tasty glob of fat and protein (called an ‘eliasome’) attached. The eliasome attracts ants which carry the seed back to their colony, eat the nutritious attachment, and dump the seed in their waste area where it will germinate.  This is a mutually beneficial arrangement for insect and plant: the ants get a meal while the plant gets its seeds dispersed further than would otherwise be possible and has them deposited in a nutrient-rich site that’s great for germination. Additionally, ants are retrieving seeds from all over the forest, and so this approach increases genetic diversity within the various Trillium populations.

 

Beautiful flowers and cool plant-animal interactions: what’s not to love about this part of PEI untamed!

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