Early spring native species of threes

By Kate DeSimone ©2012
Penn State Master Gardener

Three petals, three sepals, three leaves: when the subject is trillium all these threes add up to one flower of fetching simplicity and grace.  A member of the lily family, trillium is an early spring woodland species native to eastern North America and Canada. 

Trillium grows from a short thick underground rhizome, which sends out a single scape-like stem in early spring.   Midway up the stem are three whorled leaves, and above these is a single flower consisting of three oval petals.  Often the petals are slightly flared, giving the flower a trumpet shaped aspect.  Most trilliums are a pure and spotless white, but they may also be found in shades of pink, blood red and even yellow. 

Most white trillium eventually fade to pink, and the change in color indicates that that pollination has occurred.  In North America, the flowers tend to bloom about the time that robins return from their winter migration, giving rise to the trillium’s colloquial name of wake-robin.

Red Trillium

Trillium was valued by the Native Americans for its medicinal properties.   The root was used as an astringent and antiseptic, and the leaves boiled for use as a poultice.  Trillium was so widely used in childbirth that one of the plant’s early names was “birthroot.”


Trilliums are chiefly pollinated by bees and flies.  The seeds are spread primarily by ants, which are attracted by a sweet coating on the seeds.  Trilliums are extremely slow to reach maturity.  When grown from seed, they can take two years to germinate, and another three to four years to bloom.    Once established, however, trillium can live for up to thirty years.


Certain species of trillium are on Pennsylvania’s list of threatened plants, making it illegal to pick or disturb them.  The flowers are a favorite treat of deer, and rising deer populations in the trillium’s growth area have contributed greatly to its decline.  Other factors include competition from invasive non-native species, and loss of habitat to development.  Regardless of whether a particular species is on the list of threatened plants, trilliums are always best enjoyed in the wild, and should never be picked or tampered with.  If you would like to plant trillium in your home garden, be sure to obtain plants from a reputable nursery where they have been grown from seed or propagated from seed grown plants.

Where to plant trillium

Plant in a shady location.  Trillium enjoys the patchy sunlight of bare leafed trees in spring, but it will not survive the onslaught of full summer sun.   Try to mimic a woodland habitat by selecting a cool, moist, well drained area, and amending the soil with leaf compost.  Trillium begins to grow as early as February or March, and generally blooms around Easter.  After the bloom fades, the foliage will persist until midsummer.


The great white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is the most common trillium variety in western Pennsylvania.  It has showy two to four inch flowers, which bloom in gleaming white and eventually fade to pink.  It will eventually set fruit in the form of a small red berry.  Other trillium to look for are the snow trillium (Trillium nivale), a smaller variety which blooms in March through May in a forest habitat.  Stouter in appearance than its tall slender cousins, its creamy white flowers bloom on reddish two to six inch stems. 

True to its name, this trillium can bloom when snow is on the ground.  Blood red Trillium erectum is lovely to behold, but has a pungent odor which earned it the common names of ill-scented wake-robin and stinking Benjamin.   Nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum) has graceful downcast flowers, which generally bloom white but may be pink or maroon.  Less common are toadshade, (Trillium sessile) which has narrow maroon or greenish yellow flowers above mottled leaves, and the painted trillium (Trillium undulatum)whose wavy edged petals are splashed with crimson markings.  Unlike most other trilliums, the painted trillium prefers a boggy acidic soil. 

Great White Trillium

To enjoy trillium in the Pittsburgh area, visit Fox Chapel’s Trillium Trail.  The trail meanders on a hillside above Squaw Run Road, and a modest amount of parking is available at each of two trailheads.  In late April to early May the ground is blanketed by Trillium grandiflorum.  This spectacular display is made possible by the unobtrusive deer fence that  was installed in 1999 and which encloses a total of 23 acres surrounding the entire trail. 

Prior to the installation of the fence, the trail was devastated by Fox Chapels’s burgeoning deer population.  Given the slow growth cycle of the trillium, it is now returning to its former splendor, when the trillium were so dense that the hillside appeared to be covered in snow.  The best time to visit the trail this year is as soon as possible.  Not only is the trillium blooming ahead of schedule due to our balmy spring, but Squaw Run Road is scheduled for resurfacing in May, which could cause some inconvenience to trillium seekers.


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