Gardening Unplugged -Trilliums for the South

Gardening Unplugged -Trilliums for the South

with Tony Avent

By Published August 2022

Join Tony Avent for a little walk-in-talk as he shows our guests the amazing diversity of trilliums in the South. Gardening Unplugged is a series of informal garden chats that are free to attend during our Open Nursery and Garden Days at Plant Delights Nursery at Juniper Level Botanic Garden. This video was recorded May 2018.

Trilliums that Tony mentions in this video:

 

Video Transcription

Well good morning. Welcome everybody to Juniper Level Botanic Gardens. Our talk today, we do series of these now, they're about 15 minutes, and we'll just walk and talk about different plants. Today we're talking about trilliums and trillium is always a plant that's sort of fascinating to people. It has almost this mystical aura, so everybody's heard about it. Most people have killed them (audience laughter). I know when I was growing up the only place you can buy trilliums was Kmart and they would come in the little bags with a nice little picture. Well, those were actually harvested out of the wild and they were probably dead when they were put in the bags, and they were definitely dead when you bought them. So, people would take them out and they'd look, and they’d plant them, and they'd never come up and they said - well trillium was hard to grow because I killed them. In reality, they were killed long before you got them.

We became very fascinated with trilliums and began looking and we realized a couple of things. One, they were all pretty much stolen out of the wild. Number two, they were not the ones that were easy to grow for our climates. They were gathered gently out of the mountains of Tennessee and a lot of those simply won't do well here. Some [were] from Missouri, some from Illinois, that's the main areas of trillium poaching. We began looking and there are 25 to 30 species from here south all the way down to Florida and across to Texas that nobody's ever heard of, and nobody was growing. So, we began looking taking trips in the wild to learn these and to start learning how to propagate those. So now, we do all of those from seed.

Pedicle Trilliums and Sessile Trilliums

Now there's two basic groups of trilliums. There are pedicle trilliums and sessile trilliums. I'm going to show you a little bit about the difference here. Okay, the words pedicellate and the word sessile. Pedicellate means that it has, here's the flower here's the flower parts, pedicellate trilliums there's the stem before you get to the flower. On sessile trilliums the flower sits right on top of the leaves. That's what sessile means – is no stem. Sessiles are like a football player. You know, that don't have necks, they have the head sits right on the shoulders. That's what sessile trilliums are. The majority of the ones in the southeast are sessiles. So, the sessiles are the ones that have the interesting leaves. Pedicellate trilliums, with the little stem there, have all green leaves, so we get more excited by these because there's an incredible diversity.

Now some trilliums are solitary, means you buy one you will always have one. But what's beautiful about many of the sessiles, is they actually multiply. so that started from one I could divide that now and easily get 25 out of that. So, trilliums are extremely easy to grow, extremely easy. One of the absolute easiest plants you will ever grow, as long as you don't buy a dead plant (audience laughter). Or voles well, voles pretty much [eat] anything yes, yes.

They also grow very easy from seed. So, if we miss collecting seeds they fall in the gardens and come up and as we walk around, I'll show you. The key to growing trillium some seed, you must sow the seed fresh and fresh means the day they're ripe. Not two days later, not a week later, not a year later. Trillium seed are covered in sugars.

They're called, technical name is elaiosomes, and the Trillium tried to figure out. All right I'm a trillium, I'm sitting here, I want to spread my seed far and wide, how do I do that? So, it said - I got it. I'm going to cover it with [sugar]. And that way insects are going to want the sugars that I'm covering it with, so they'll pick it up and take it to their nest and disperse it. And it works great. If you can take a fresh Trillium seed, lay it on the ground, you set there for less than a minute and a wasp or Yellow Jacket will come pick it up and haul it off. It's absolutely amazing. Ants, the same thing. You'll find trilliums growing on ant mounds because the year after they collect them, they'll be coming up right in the middle of an ant mound because they love those sugars. So really easy. Now trillium seed take one to two years to come up so it's not a fast idea, not a fast plant to grow. Commercially, to grow a plant from seed, it's five to seven years. Which is why almost nobody other than us grows trillium from seed because you're losing money on every plant you sell. But it's important that we get these plants out to people.

Trilliums Native to North Carolina

So, let's look at several different ones today. This is Trillium lancifolium. This is one that's native all around here. Lancifolium means narrow leaves, lance – leaves. This one typically grows in swamps. It also grows equally as well here in the garden. It’s probably one of the easiest trilliums we have to grow. There's several that grow generally in very wet areas – lancifolium, and then our native pusillum which is the smallest of the pedicle trilliums. And you can find that if you're ever out at Five County Stadium, it grows in the woods around there. If you find a swamp near Five County Stadium, it’s probably full of the little Trillium pusillum.

All right, so let's walk around and look at a few different ones. One of the very interesting things is the fact that they do multiply so fast and on many of these trilliums from the deep south, they actually come up and flower in the middle of winter. this for example is Trillium ludovicianum. Ludovicianum is Latin for Louisiana so that's where its native. This one is up out of the ground January. It is in full bloom by Valentine's Day. It's going dormant now, so in another two to three weeks that's gone for the year. So, you have to think of the trilliums as actually great winter flowering plants. When the hellebores are in bloom trilliums are in full flower.

When to Move Trilliums

The other neat thing about trilliums is they are really easy to move. And the best time to move them is when they're in full flower. It’s completely the opposite of what you think. Everybody comes up with these – well, you need to move things in fall this … no, no, no. Full bloom. All through the garden, you'll see trilliums that have been planted recently. So, if you look right behind you, see the trillium there with the red tag, that was moved about two weeks ago. Middle of bloom.

Make Sure the Trilliums You Buy are Nursery Propagated

Normally trilliums have a sort of a liver red flower. Every now and then you will find a variant which would be, for example, yellow in trilliums. Sometimes you find them bicolor with yellows and reds. Now those are the are worth a lot of money. There are actually people from Europe that come over every year and scour the woods for these special trilliums and take them back to sell them for large sums of money. What we found is, if you isolate these, they actually will come fairly true. So, if we have one with yellow, that we find in the wild, instead of selling that, we bring it back and set seed on it and then five to seven years later we've got a lot of them to sell without depleting the wild. What we try to encourage people [to do] is don't collect in the wild for sale. That's what's done, it's still being done. Now, that sort of got a bad reputation, the public was a little bit aware of that, so people will now go into garden centers or nurseries and ask - Was this wild collected? And the answer is – No, it was nursery grown. Well actually, it was laundered, just like drug money (laughs from audience), there is a big business now in trillium laundering. They collect them out of the wild. They sell them to the Dutch in Holland. And the Dutch plant them in the ground and then they go back out and re-harvest them and send them back to the United States as nursery grown. So, the majority of the trilliums you buy, that people say our nursery grown are not. So, the word you want to ask is - Are they nursery propagated? Nursery grown has no meaning. That just means they were laundered, but nursery propagated means they actually grow them in. If you find them less than probably fifteen to thirty bucks, they were collected. Because again, five to seven years, there's no way you can do it for any less money than that. But again, this plant could be divided now. That's probably about seven years old we could divide that and get easily a hundred plants out of that.

How to Divide Trilliums

Let's see if I can actually get down here and dig one. I'll show you how this is done. Okay, so what I was trying to show you - there's the rhizomes. What we can actually do, if you have one that doesn't offset, we can actually make it offset. A couple different ways to do that. If you have one special trillium and all your neighbors are coveting it, what happens, this rhizome grows every year, and this is the growing tip. You can actually go in here and cut off the base - like that - and a year later that will develop eyes and begin to grow. You will probably get three to five new plants from that. If you don't like to do that, if that's too much for you, you can actually just go in and scar it. Just go in and cut a circle around and then replant it. And then the next year same thing happens. You'll form three to five eyes. I could probably get, if I was really greedy, I could probably get 20 plants out of that one stem. Trilliums are again, not as hard [to grow] and I'm just going to replant that and that would be absolutely fine.

Q: You going to plant that little one too?

A: Yeah, plant that little piece, put him back in there. And that's it. So next year, and didn't quite get enough on that, you need really a piece of that rhizome but that's how easy they are. Now the seed are going to start to mature in here. This is the beginnings of the seed and they're not quite there yet. That seed pod will swell up to about five times that big so it will be about this size and when it does, you can harvest it actually several days before they're ripe. If you wait till it's ripe, the ants or the yellowjackets are gone with it. So, before it's ripe, harvest it, break it open, and inside there the seed will just pop out. But again, all covered in sugars. Okay, so let's walk and look at a few more.

Q: How do you plant the seeds?

A: How do you plant them? A great question. We put ours in pots. You can let them fall right on the ground. [You] Don't really need to cover them but just get them in the ground. You know light covering certainly won't hurt but they're used to being able to be dispersed by animals which are not going to bury them. You sort of mimic what you see in nature. You'll see a lot in the gardens as we walk around today. Most of them are pretty well over by now. Here's a nice yellow one that was just moved about ten days ago, and you see it's absolutely reestablished fine.

Trillium Breeding

Now one of the interesting things we’ve found is with trilliums, there is incredible hybrid vigor. You hear about that with a lot of plants. Well, nobody's ever really tried to breed trilliums, so we said let's see what happens and this, for example, is a hybrid. The parents of this were down to here and you see we've got pretty massive leaves and the vigor is absolutely incredible. We've been able to discover that by planting the two close by each other they'll hybridize. You don't even have to do it; the bugs will do it for you. These are pollinated by fungus gnats. If you come out when they're fresh open, you will see the plant absolutely covered with little fungus gnats. it's drawn by the by the fragrance in the flower. they really are amazing. if you've never smelled sessile trilliums, the smells are fascinating. They go from Trillium foetidissimum, that smells like a dog that needs a bath, to Trillium cuneatum, that smells like fresh fruit. Some smell like bananas, some smell like pears. It's absolutely fascinating. So, when we're trying to identify trilliums, it's as much by sight and by flower as by smell.

One of the interesting things we noticed when we started going into the wild is that many of the plants didn't match what we call keys, which is how you determine what species you had. So back in ‘98 I made a stop up in Tennessee, at Lookout Mountain, got out of the car, and I'm looking there in the parking lot and there's obviously two trilliums. So, I got out the trillium books, and looked, and it said there was only one there, and it was obviously two. So, we dug up the oddball, we drove it down to Atlanta to one of the guys that had written the trillium books. We said - What is this? He said - Where's it from? I said – Nope, nope, you don't get that. That's not in your key (audience laughter). Tell me what it is. And he looked, you know, turned it over and did everything and he said – Well, it looks like the one from Louisiana. I said - Thank you. He said - where’s it from? I said – It’s from Tennessee. He's like - Can't be. Well, it turns out, when we started critically looking, once we got horticulturists in the field instead of botanist, who need a plant to be dead before they can identify it (audience laughter). We have now found 18 new species in the Southeast in the last 20 years. 18 new trillium species. Here's one we found a few years ago, down in Alabama. Found it at a dump site beside the road. I’m down there in the pouring rain. I'm walking around. All right, well this one I recognize. This one doesn't look right. We called one of the trillium guys in Alabama and he went looked at and he said oh is this the same. I said no, it's not. So, we got a guy to do DNA on it. Sure enough, it's another new species. We haven't even published and named this one yet. It's amazing. We think that in 2018 we would have found all the stuff in the Southeast US. Not even close.

We Love Trilliums, but So Do Wild Pigs

One of the most distinct new species, you'll see a lot of in the first half the garden, was found on interstate 40, excuse me interstate 20, in South Carolina across from McDonald's (audience laughter). It's 10,000 plants. The only place it exists in the world. Never discovered before. So, it's really an exciting time for us to be able to get those plants out into the trade. Of course, you have you have stories that are upsetting too. Wild pigs are killing species of trilliums before they can even be named. One new one was found by a friend of ours on the nuclear plant, on the Savannah River nuclear plant, and he got permission to go in. By the time he checked the second time, the wild pigs had gone in, there was only 12 plants left in existence in the world. Pigs actually eat them. So, we have one of those for safekeeping, but I just got word last week [about] another population of a brand-new one that hadn't been discovered. Pigs got in the main site there and he said there's absolutely nothing left. So, it's a matter of being able to conserve these, get them propagated, and maybe one day when we eat all the wild pigs, we can actually put some of them back.

This is one of the few Midwest species that we can actually grow here because it does occur as far as eastern Tennessee. This is one called Trillium recurvatum, so it's called the Recurve Trillium because the pedals are very tightly recurved. That's one that is real easy to spot in the wild because it doesn't look like any of the other trilliums.

I wanted to show you one of the pedicellate trilliums, it was in flower still, this is just finishing up. This is a Trillium flexipes. This is probably the best of the pedicellate trilliums for the southeast. Everybody tries to grow grandiflorum and, unless you've got a heat tolerant grandiflorum, they're just not good in the South. Flexipes, in my opinion, is actually showier than grandiflorum. This is a pop from a population in Alabama, so this is the one you really want to look at if you like that white. I would encourage you to join some of the wildflower groups. There is a lot of trillium rescues. There's a place we went [to] in the Georgia - Alabama line, that was being developed for a shopping center. That was probably easily a half-million a Trillium luteum, which is the yellow flowered one that smells like lemons. It's a pretty amazing when you find these in the wild. Trilliums our native all around here. On this road is Trillium catesbaei, which is a pink pedicellate. It used to be very common in here but of course, we built houses and farms and there's not much of it left.

Give Trilliums a Try

So again, I'll sort of stop here if you've got any questions, I just really want to encourage everybody to give these a shot. They're typically, they're good in light shade. Generally deciduous shade. Because when the trees have no leaves on them, that's when these are growing. They've finished their lifecycle by the time trees are fully leafed out so even though they're in shade to you, they think they're in sun. And there's several species we found that we grow in full sun, as long as the ground is moist. We do a lot of trialing here so when we find something in the wild in shade, we bring it back and try it in sun. And we've probably got, so far, a half dozen species that grow equally as well in sun as they do in shade. Morning sun's always better, just like growing hostas, because it's a little bit cooler. Nut the key on most of them is the moisture.

Now typically, where you find these, if you're driving down the road, a good indicator plant is beech trees. If you see beech trees, there's probably trilliums underneath. That's a great indicator and typically they grow in pH’s right around neutral. Even though, we can grow them in pH that's much lower. That's what they typically like is around 6.5 to 7.5.

So, any questions?

Q: What do you grow them in?

A: What do we grow them in? In the ground, just in good compost amended soil. Where they grow in the wild, again the wet ones they grow in muck, but generally always rich soils. That's what they tend to like. In containers, you need to grow them in a large container that's well-drained. So, they're not fabulous in containers, they can be grown there. But in the ground, as long as you've got a good compost amended soil, they're fantastic. So again, I can't tell you how easy they are.

We now, in the gardens, have just over 1,600 different selections of trillium. It's just wide open. When we started, we had no idea how big this could get but just every trillium that comes up it's so different. You got this one has this pattern and this one has this pattern. And I would encourage you, if you haven't been here for winter open house, come back next winter because that's when they're in absolutely full glory.

They really are easy, again, as long as you start with live plants. But just be aware that when you buy them from us if you buy them today most of them are already dormant. So as long as is there something in that pot, and we do check, the plants going to be absolutely fine next year. So, it is a leap of faith when you're buying a pot of dirt.

Q: Should we leave it in that?

A: No, go ahead and plant it. Go ahead and plant it. You do not leave a trillium in a pot. They're really hard to take care of in containers.

Q: I find that they’re really deep rooted.

A: They are very deep. They actually have what's called contractile roots. No matter where you plant them, they will pull themselves down to the level they like. So that's the cool thing about trilliums.

Q: I’m in Atlanta and I tried to bring her one, and I dug and dug and dug and it snapped off. So, I should’ve just brought here the roots?

A: Yeah, you have to get down deep enough to get that rise on that little piece I showed. That's yep, they are, they can, they will pull themselves down if the soil is good, they will go down six eight inches. Yeah, you just get a bigger shovel.

Any other questions? Yes?

Q: Aside from seed, I’m sorry if you already said this I couldn’t hear, can they be propagated by division?

A: Yes, yes, for example - these I could dig this clump up here and there's probably 15 to 20 plants in there.

Q: Do you cut the rhizome?

A: Yes, we showed that and if I had a shovel, I would dig one of these up but that's a little more difficult. Yes, you have a rhizome that looks like your finger, and you can just snip the end off as long as you got about a one-inch piece and just keep snipping. And every piece you cut, a year from now, will start growing. It will not grow for a year. If you grow Solomon’s Seal, it's exactly the same. If you cut a Solomon’s Seal root, it will not grow until one year from now because it spends that time developing the dormant eyes. It has eyes all over that rhizome that will never sprout until you cut. And all of a sudden, it's like – right, if we're going to survive, we got to learn how to grow and see. And so, the eyes start expanding and then the roots start coming down the next year stems pop up. So yeah, very easy to divide and as we mentioned earlier, the best time to divide them is when they're in flower.

Any other questions? Well, hope you all enjoyed the gardens today and there a lot of trilliums out there to see. And we'll be around if you have other questions. Thank you all so much. Thank you, thank you.

Back to articles