Wake-robins

 

(This 788th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 7, 2006.)

 

Over the past several springs I had seen few trilliums and I wondered if this was one wildflower that our overabundant deer had finally eaten into extinction.

 

Apparently not. In late April Mike Galas and I came across several fields of these lovely flowers along Brunning and Kipsel Roads in the Tonawanda Indian Reservation. (The reservation is southwest of Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge.)

 

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Red Trillium

 

It was good to see these wildflowers again and to witness their simple geometry. Linnaeus rightly named them trilliums for they certainly exhibit threes. Atop a thin stem spread three evenly spaced petals, and behind those white or occasionally red or red-marked petals three green sepals divide the angles between them. Finally below these flower parts are the trillium's only three leaves, again equally spaced and directly under the petals.

 

Trilliums are also known as wake-robins, a name made familiar by the essayist John Burroughs who wrote an extremely popular book with that title. Some American authors suggest that the name derives from the appearance of robins and trilliums at about the same time in early spring, but in England the name is said to refer to the danger of rousing the goblin Robin Goodfellow, possibly because of the root's use there as a purported aphrodisiac.

 

Bend down and sniff a red trillium and it will remind you of another name for this species. It may even change your attitude toward trilliums in general. That name is Stinking Benjamin. (For the Bennies reading this, Jack Sanders points out that this "Benjamin" is a mispronunciation of "benjoin" an earlier form of the word benzoin, a substance often used in the production of perfumes.) In any event the 19th century American botanist Neltje Blanchan described the flower as "carrion-scented" and its odor that of "raw beefsteak of uncertain age." Be prepared for a shock when you smell it.

 

Despite her negative attitude toward the plant, Ms. Blanchan observed it carefully to determine how it is pollinated. She did so because trilliums do not repay visitors with the nectar that attracts those pollinators to other plants. Indeed, she found that most insects appeared to know this because they ignored trilliums. She did, however, observe a group of tiny insects visiting the flowers. They were flesh-flies, the same flies that we often find buzzing around garbage. Apparently the flies feed on pollen, but in the process they carry off enough extra grains to pollinate other plants. Thus that nasty smell serves a useful purpose for this plant belies the old adage, "It couldn't draw flies."

 

There are many trillium species. The largest and most common is the white or large-flowered trillium, whose Latin name, Trillium grandiflorum, records this size. Its petals are 2-4 inches in length, its leaves twice that long, its white flower turning pinkish with age. Among the others, all much smaller, is the nodding trillium whose flower droops below the leaves. The flower of that red trillium I would describe as purple and the white petals of the most attractive of the genus, the painted trillium, have central red blazes. According to Sanders, when botanists were asked to name their favorite wildflowers, the painted trillium ranked sixth out of over a thousand candidates. There is even a strange kind of trillium called the sessile trillium or toadshade. It is hard to recognize this species as a trillium because the petals and sepals never open. All you see is this erect column atop the usual three leaves. Finally, another oddly comported variety found in the central Appalachians is yellow.

 

Herbalists have used trilliums for the usual litany of purposes. American Indians and early colonists called the trillium birthroot because they used its powdered root to induce labor. It has also been applied as an antiseptic, astringent and expectorant, to control heart palpitations and hemorrhages, and to reduce the swelling of ulcers or tumors. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, because it smelled so bad, red trillium was at one time also thought to be useful in treating gangrene.

 

Trilliums grow readily from seed planted in leafmold in hardwood shade, but they are very slow to mature. Even transplants will usually not bloom again for two or more years.-- Gerry Rising