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Great White Trilliums May 8 09

Have you noticed? The trilliums are in bloom.

Where they grow thickest, you can often see broad stretches of rich, open maple and beech woods carpeted with white, as if someone had strewn popcorn through the hardwoods. Of all the spring wildflowers, the great white trillium is the icon of this time in the northwoods when the forest floor comes alive with color.

For the past two weeks I had been laid up with a nasty bug. I finally reemerged from my enforced confinement, where life had been reduced to four walls and many a bowl of homemade chicken soup, to discover that spring had not waited for me. What had a short time before been just the first hints of emerging greenery—wild leeks popping up in the woods, the first Canadian anemones and a few pioneer trout lilies showing their blooms—had become a full-blown explosion of color and life.

My first tentative, post-convalescent hike told me that I was by no means up to snuff yet physically. But by my second outing earlier this week, I had improved greatly, and was in good enough shape to finally enjoy the season’s progression along the Coldwater River.

Stately sycamores grace both sides of the river along the Dolan Trail where I went walking. Their striking olive, beige, and gray mottled bark so much resembles camouflage that you’d swear nature had cloaked the trunks in RealTree. The woods along the trail are marked by large trees of every kind—huge sycamores, big maples, immense old beeches. With large branches spreading high overhead, the understory is thin, and the presiding mood is spacious, ancient, and cathedral-like, the way I have always pictured Sherwood Forest. Pileated woodpeckers nest there, and I once watched an enormous gray owl hopscotch through the treetops. On this day, as I sat by the bluff just below where the fast-flowing river forks into two channels, an otter slipped along the opposite bank and disappeared into a hole.

Virginia bluebells were at their peak, covering large patches of the woodland in an Impressionistic azure wash. Fat bumblebees moved busily among the flowers, poking their heads into the long, bell-like tubes. I’ve never been stung by a bumblebee and I hope never to acquire the experience. Judging from their size, I’m sure the bees pack a wallop. But they seem to be docile, peace-loving creatures that pay little attention to me. We’ve ranged through the same stands of bluebells together for many springs, coexisting, the bees pursuing with single-minded purpose their mission of pollinating the flowers and ensuring that in the few places where this rare Michigan wildflower grows, it spreads and prospers in profusion.

Unlike the Virginia bluebell, the great white trillium is fairly easy to find. Most Michigan residents know it by sight. With its three rich, creamy white petals and three broad leaves, Trillium grandiflorum is a flamboyant plant, commonly growing in colonies too large to overlook. Not that it grows everywhere. I don’t find it in oak woods, which tend to be a bit sterile overall. The trillium is a friend of maples, beeches, and rich, black soils, and it prefers woods edges and settings where light can filter through rather than deep, heavily shaded forest interiors.

From now until late May, this queen of the spring wildflowers holds court. In another week or two, look for some of the older flowers to start turning pink. Another species of trillium has dark red petals, but the two plants are distinctly different. There are in fact a number of trillium species native to Michigan, most being considerably rarer than the great white trillium. The toad trillium’s hallmark is its odd, mottled leaves; the painted trillium has a striking, crimson V on each of its three white petals; the diminutive snow trillium is one of the earliest of the spring wildflowers.

But the great white trillium is the belle of them all–showy,  stately, graceful, an emblem of the Michigan wildwoods in the spring.

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Written by Dave.