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NATIVE PLANTS: Long-lived trillium triples your viewing pleasure
NATIVE PLANTS: Long-lived trillium triples your viewing pleasure

Those of you who walk along the forested streams and seeps of western Montana in the spring are likely to encounter a beautiful plant called trillium. Dappled sunlight can make the forest floor glow with its bright white flowers.

Trillium, a name that refers to three leaves and three petals, has many common names, including wake-robin, because it blooms in early spring, and bethroot (birthroot), in reference to its traditional medicinal use by Native Americans for childbirth. There are many species of trillium in North America, but only one western trillium, trillim ovatum (ovatum describes its egg-shaped leaves), occurs in Montana.

Insects play an important part in the life of trillium. Cross-pollination (movement of pollen from one plant to another) by insects is necessary for seed production. Trillium flowers do not produce nectar, however several insects such as beetle and bees forage for their pollen. Flowers turn pink or purplish as they age, perhaps advertising to insect pollinators "don't bother, I'm already pollinated." Seed dispersal is also dependent on insects - each seed bears a conspicuous yellow food body, called an elaiosome, that is attractive to ants and yellow jackets. The insects transport seeds to their nests where they eat the oily food body and discard the seeds.

Trillium mature slowly and live a long time. One plant was aged at more than 72 years. Their life starts with a two-year germination cycle - the first year a root grows, the second year a leaf sprouts. For several years the plant has only one leaf, then graduates to a three-leaf non-reproductive stage. It takes at least 15 years until trillium reaches its three-leaf reproductive (flowering) stage.

Western trillium is highly sensitive to disturbance. A broken shoot can take a year or more to regenerate, and removal of roots can devastate a population. Herbalists currently use the roots and leaves for childbirth and other medicinal purposes. There is concern among herbalists and conservationists that market driven, unsustainable harvest of trillium could destroy populations in a very short time. These folks brought the problem of over harvest of other wild medicinal plant species, such as purple cornflower (echinacea angustifolia) to the public's attention. In response the Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 178, which placed a temporary three-year moratorium on harvest of seven medicinal plants native to Montana, including trillium, on state lands.

This spring enjoy the stunning beauty of western trillium in our surrounding forests, and remember, each blooming plant may be older than you.

Tarn Ream is a graduate student at the University of Montana. A member of the Montana Native Plant Society, she is studying trillium and hopes that her work helps the development of management strategies for conservation of this fascinating plant. During the growing season, the group's members writer a weekly column for the Missoulian Outdoors Section.

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