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In Search of the Painted Trillium May 15 09

If I seem to be going a little wildflower crazy lately, please bear with me. I promise I’ll shift to other topics. But of all the seasons in Michigan, spring is the time when the woods come to life in a gentle but irresistible explosion of color. Much of that color is available for anyone who cares to look. But some of it is so rare that you could spend a lifetime traipsing through the forests and never get so much as a glimpse. Such is the painted trillium.

I take particular delight in sharing the images in this post, knowing that I’m offering you something most unusual and, I think you’ll agree, quite beautiful. While common farther east in the Smoky Mountains and New England states, Trillium undulatum grows in Michigan in only a handful of locations near Port Huron. The Michigan Nature Association (MNA) has had the foresight to purchase some of those sites for preservation “in perpetuity.” Other sites are subject to the vagaries of human impact.

Last Monday Lisa and I made the drive east to a place where I knew the plants grew. But it had been quite a few years since the last time I had visited the location. Since it was a property of the MNA, I wasn’t concerned whether the site still existed. It was more a matter of whether I could still find it.

I did, and so did the mosquitoes. The day was cool, almost chilly, but that didn’t deter swarms of the hungry little monsters from descending on us. I hadn’t taken them into account, and both of us were wearing only short-sleeved shirts. Hopping back in the car, we made a dash to Port Huron and purchased some insect repellent. That did the trick. Back at the preserve, we still found ourselves surrounded by a penumbra of mosquitoes, but while they were a nuisance, they didn’t land on us and bite. Off we went into the woods with our cameras.

Painted trilliums don’t form extensive colonies like the familiar great white trillium, Trillium grandiflorum. They grow singly or in groups of two or three. Here in Michigan, we found the plants growing on hummocks festooned with partridge berries and wild lilies of the valley in wet woods populated by eastern hemlock and paper birch. While I never saw the trilliums growing directly below the hemlocks, they seem to like having the evergreens nearby.

At the same preserve, we also came across another uncommon trillium. The red trillium, Trillium erectum, resembles the common, white trillium in the shape and color of its leaves. But its deep, burgundy petals distinguish it clearly. The pretty flower hangs shyly below its umbrella of three leaves, making it a bit of a challenge to photograph. Plan on getting belly-close to the soil if you want to get pictures. But the results are worth the effort.

Like many wildflowers, the red trillium goes by a number of alternative names. Wakerobin is picturesque enough. Stinking Benjamin and wet dog trillium are a bit less flattering, deriving from the pungent aroma of the flowers.

Never pick a trillium. This is particularly true for rarer species such as the painted trillium, but the rule applies to all trilliums. Pick one below the leaves and you’ve killed the entire plant. It won’t grow back the following spring. I know, I know…a bouquet of trilliums would make a wonderful gift for your sweetheart. But it would also make an illegal one, since all trilliums are protected by law.

So enjoy trilliums outdoors, where their beauty is freely on display. If you’re lucky, you may encounter one of the more uncommon varieties, such as the red trillium.

And if you’re fortunate enough to look in exactly the right place at the right time, you may even find the painted trillium. If you do, be sure to congratulate yourself for me. You’ve seen something very few people in our state ever see. Enjoy it—and let it grow in peace. Some things need and deserve to remain untouched.







Written by Dave.