On cold winter days lit with bright sunshine I like to take long walks in the bare-branched woods of our creek bottom. The brown leaves rustle with each step. I admire the girth of old swamp chestnut oaks, water oaks, Virginia pines, sweet bay magnolia, and cypress trees. I check on the creek’s flow, its color-clear and greenish blue in the deeper pools in dry times and milky-brown and muddy after a rain.
Winters are short here in south Georgia, but it’s the only time one can comfortably roam the woods without fear of snakebite or the dark sortie missions of mosquitos and deerflies. I revel in this time, however short, but by February the winter has grown long and I begin to pine for the return of greenery to the landscape. The greys and browns of these dormant months run tiresome and gloomy.
Eventually, on some bright afternoon in early February I notice the three variegated green triangles of the trilliums pushing through the dry, brown coating of leaves that will be all the nourishment the bottomland soil receives. One here. One there. Rising singly or in grouped clusters, they make their mark. The mottled appearance of these fresh-leaved triangles arise unexpectedly from the cold soil. A couple weeks later, small, soft, dark purple structures that can hardly yet be called flowers appear at the center of the three-leaved whorl. It is more of a small spear, really, the tip of which looks for a brief time like a pair of puckered lips in the beam of sunlight slashing through the trees.
Here in the deep south, winter is a quasi-season that never seems to make up its mind if it wants to be here or not. We have a brief stretch of opening up the faucets to drip and prevent pipes from freezing. That may last only a day or two. There are cold days of wet winter rain and days of North wind bringing down its polar air for a three or four day excursion, but these are generally interludes punctuated by temperatures in the 60s, 70s, or even low 80s. The erratic pattern can be frustrating.
The trilliums are the first sign that spring, a season even more brief and erratic than winter, but at least one that brings new life and beginning back to the land, is upon us. Trillium-it’s a pleasant word to say, the way the LL’s roll off the tongue and the way the vowels lift it up into a joyful sound.
There are over 40 species of trilliums known to science, about 30 of which are native to North America. The more well recognized, showy, and some would say, the most diverse trillium populations occur in the southern Appalachian mountain regions, usually on some rocky slope full of deciduous or conifer trees. The trilliums that occur in that region include Catesby’s trillium, the painted trillium and the great white trillium, the last two of which reach up into Ontario and Quebec.
But, the trilliums of our south Georgia woods, like the people here, are rather reserved, less showy, and could be one of several of a handful of species with purplish brown flowers and mottled leaves. The most likely candidate is Trillium cuneatum, known more affectionately as purple toadshade or sweet Betsy. However, it could also be mottled trillium (T. maculatum), Underwood trillium (T. underwoodii), decumbent trillium (T. decumbens), deceptive trillium (T. decipiens), or least likely of all, relict trillium (T. reliquum), which is endangered. Each of these species enjoy the rich bottomland soil of the southeastern coastal plain, though I am not enough of a taxonomist to decipher one from the other. That used to bother me. But, I’ve grown to appreciate these obscure woodland plants simply for what they are- a sign and a mystery, full of lore and legend.
The name Trillium is rooted in the Latin word for three. The plants have three leaves, three petals, three sepals, etc. This gives it some symbolism in the Christian tradition of the trinity-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Trilliums, themselves, are a storied group of plants around which quite a bit of folklore has arisen. The flowers are sometimes called “wake robin” because they bloom in some areas before the robins return. Not so here in south Georgia, where the robins join us winter-long, and soon leave when the trilliums bloom.
Many Native American tribes used trillium root as an aid to ease the strain of childbirth and to treat a host of female health issues, lending it yet another name, “birth-root”. Their warriors often carried the root into battle, chewing it for strength and protection. Native Americans and mountain folk long considered the trillium sacred, a plant not to trifle with or treat with disrespect. The unfamiliar where always warned not to pick the flowers of the trillium because it would wither and die and the plants would not return to that spot for years. In many places today it remains illegal to pick trilliums.
The facts about trilliums are as interesting, if not moreso, than the legends. Trilliums only have a narrow window of a few weeks in late winter and early spring to gather their sugars and starches in the sunlight before the dense canopy of the woods closes above them, darkening the understory for another season. The fat sworl of three leaves and the three-petaled flowers are borne on a single stem , which is often quite short and attached to a rhizome below ground. In an effort to pick the flowers in a way in which they can be held, people generally do their picking below the leaves. As a result the plant can no longer gather sunlight and there’s not enough time to send up a new shoot and leaves. This robs the plant of its ability to make energy. If very small, the rhizome itself may die or, more often, it simply stops flowering for 2-3 years, giving the impression that it may never return.
In reality, trilliums get by on a bit of trickery. These unique plants rely on two types of insects for their survival. The dark purple flowers of our local trilliums give off an acrid, pungent odor not unlike that of rotting meat, lending the plants yet another moniker, “Stinking Benjamin”. This attracts flies, which inadvertently do the business of pollinating the flowers. Flies prefer such fetid flowers because they are tricked into searching for carrion onto which to lay their eggs so the larvae will have a food source once hatched. As the flies forage over the flower in search of the odor’s source, their bodies rob the flower’s anthers of its pollen and then deposit it on the stigma of another.
Interestingly, another insect plays a role in the woodland dispersal of trilliums. Once the trillium flower is pollinated, a small berry is produced, which ripens in late summer. Each seed inside the fruit has a little pouch full of nutrition attached to it. The chemical makeup of this pouch and its contents mimic that of insects. Ants are attracted to these seeds because, like the flies who pollinate the flower, they are seeking the source of this odor. Tricked into believing they will find another insect on which to prey, the ants carry the seed and its pouch back to their nest, consume the pouch, and toss the seed aside, often in a fertile, protected spot.
The myths and legends surrounding the trillium pale in comparison to the mysteries and curiosities found in its true story. A person could live an entire life within spitting distance of a patch of trilliums and never have a clue as to the intricacies required for them to persist. The rich, leaf-fed soil. The angle of the sun, the window of goldilocks conditions, the flies, the ants. Trilliums are like a lot of things that await out there in the middle of nowhere, hidden from sight, with complicated existences that we never comprehend. Such things are summed up in the words of the late Barry Lopez who once wrote, “Mystery is the real condition in which we live.” I used to want to learn everything about every plant and animal that I came across. But, with age I have learned to just take pleasure in their presence and revel in the wonder of it all. Sometimes its best to let the mysteries remain. Like the trilliums, sometimes it’s a comfort to just let them be as they welcome a new year of life to the woods.