Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Wildflower Wednesday: Trillium cuneatum

My garden has taken a beating the last two winters and it wasn't from the weather. It's been decimated by voles. Native wildflowers have disappeared. Gone are Trilliums, Erythronium albidum (white trout lily), Hepatica, Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches), Camassias and several other ephemeral beauties.

Trillium cuneatum was one of the first native plants that I discovered when we moved here, so it was the first on my list to be replaced. The garden wouldn't be the same without that dramatic mottled foliage and those twirling sessile flowers!
Old stands of native ephemerals are precious and impossible to replace in a season
Finding replacement plants was not easy. Long time readers know buying local is important to me, but, when I couldn't find it at my favorite native plant nurseries, I had to go on the internet. Luckily, I found Trilliums for sale at Cottage Lake Gardens in Washington state. Susan Egan, the owner, shipped them bare root, wrapped in moss and ready to be planted. I couldn't be happier.
planted and mulched in shale and covered with a wire basket to protect from marauding squirrels
It's extremely frustrating to discover that a healthy practice I advocate~using leaf mold to mulch wildflowers~ was the very one that made it easy for voles to feast on the plant crowns, roots, and bulbs/rhizomes. I found their shallow runs when I pulled the mulch away to look for emerging plants. I was heartbroken to see depressions in the soil where my beautiful spring ephemerals ought to have been. Of course I did a mad search to see what other gardens were using to deter voles. I decided to use expanded shale/PermaTill in the bottom of the hole and also as a mulch. Voles have been described as a cross between a mouse and a mole. They're about five inches long and covered in brownish fur. The mole part of them makes them great diggers, but, they are supposed to dislike the rough shale and thus avoid the protected plants. I will let you know how well it works.
Not my garden
What better way to celebrate Trillium cuneatum's return to the garden, than to make it the star of March Wildflower Wednesday.

 Sweet Betsy can still be seen in remnant woodlands all over my neighborhood. Sixty or so years ago roads were bulldozed through farmland and forests west of Nashville to build one of the city's first planned communities for the growing post war population. Our little bit of the neighborhood with its shallow soil and exposed limestone bedrock had never been farmed, but, had been logged; what you see now is secondary growth with a few untouched areas in the hills and ridges surrounding us. The indigenous wildflowers~ False Soloman's Seal, Spring Beauties, Rue Anemone, Trout-lily, False Garlic, Blue-eyed Grass, Wild Sweet William and Sweet Betsy, have never  disappeared from roadsides and wooded lots. Each spring they delight residents with their arrival.
dark maroon sessile flowers above three broad mottled leaves

Long time readers might remember that I built this garden around those native beauties. The first spring in the house, I found Sweet Betsy in the wayback backyard and transplanted it to my new woodland garden. I remember carefully digging around it to get all the rhizome and roots and gently placing it in the garden. They survived and thrived despite my gardening ignorance.
It will be years before this one flowers
Trillium cuneatum typically flowers from early March to mid April. It can be found in rich, mostly upland woods, but, it is especially happy growing on Middle Tennessee's Ordovician limestone soils (neutral to basic soil). The two I transplanted multiplied to many. Trillium will be happy in your garden, if you give it a rich, moist soil, in shade, protect it from browsing critters and keep aggressive perennials from crowding it. They can live for a long time and usually do not flower until they are several years old. It's found growing across Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

seeds waiting to ripen and be harvested
It might be a few years before the new Trilliums will bloom, but this morning, I saw Trillium seedlings poking up. It looks like the ants did a great job on dispersing seeds before the voles ate the parent plants! Trillium is making a comeback! Hokey smokes, you know I was dancing in the garden.

Trillium cuneatum

Common Name: whip-poor-will flowerlarge toadshade, purple toadshade, and bloody butcher
Type: Herbaceous perennial
Family: Melanthiacea, Little sweet Betsy falls within the sessile group
Flowering: flowers from early March to mid April. Showy, fragrant
Native Range: Southeastern United States
Zone: 5 to 8
Size: 1.00 to 1.50 feet tall and will spread to 1 foot
Bloom: Maroon to yellow to orange to reddish-green
Sun: Part shade to full shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Low
Foliage: Colorful
Pollinators: produces pollen, but, I have never seen its pollinators! I assume Hymenoptera insects, including honey bees, bumblebees, and wasps visit the plant.
Propagation: Ants collect and disperse the seeds of Trillium spp. They're attracted to the elaiosome, which is a large, lipid-rich structure attached to the seeds. The ant dispersal process is known as Myrmecochory.  The ants take the seeds to their nest, where they eat the elaiosomes and put the seeds in their garbage (midden), where they can be protected until they germinate.Yellow jackets are also seed disperses.
Wildlife: Can be browsed by deer and roots and rhizomes can be eaten by voles.
Comments: Never pick flowers or leaves, you will lose your plant. Each plant in the genus Trillium features three leaves in a terminal whorl. A single flower emerges on a stem which is either peduncled (on a stalk) or sessile (stalk absent). Trillium cuneatum is a sessile form. It's the plant of the year at the Georgia Native Plant Society!

**You can search the internet for more information about controlling these little rodent thugs. I ask only that you never, ever, ever, use poisons to kill them! You don't want any roaming critters to eat a poisoned vole.

Happy Wildflower Wednesday,


Welcome to Clay and Limestone's wildflower celebration. Wildflower Wednesday is about sharing and celebrating wildflowers from all over this great big, beautiful world. Join us on the fourth Wednesday of each month. If you want to share a story about a dormant native wildflower, please do, after all, winter is a long season.  Please leave a comment when you add your url to Mr Linky.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. I haven't seen my trillium up yet. It won't be long now. My wildlings are usually about 2 weeks behind yours. I do have some foliage of Dutchmans Breeches poking up. A fun time of year. Every time you walk out something else is popping up. Happy WW.

    1. It is a fun time of year, watching for emerging foliage and discovering blooms of Spring ephemerals makes me happy.

  2. My community owns a large tract of property that used to be full of Trillium Grandiflorum. Until the deer came and devoured everything. We have problems with moles and voles here too. I've lost several really nice hostas to them. They chew up all the roots.

    1. Darn critters! I popped over to see your blog post...that was a fun read.

  3. Our woods on the North side of Nashville are currently loaded with Trillium blooms. It's our first year in our new home up here, and it has been so exciting to see all of the unique wildflowers and plants that are coming up on the property.

    1. How wonderful! It sounds beautiful. Did you know you had so many beauties when you bought the property?

  4. I love your post Gail, and am glad it had a happy ending. I hope the seedlings coming up are not eaten by the voles. I also enjoyed reading about the history of your area.

  5. I love trillium and have never seen any in the woods here in New England. I do have a few in the garden though and love them.

  6. I goofed again and posted twice. Forgive me for not being tech savvy. Feel free to delete my mistake, I could not figure out how to do it. Sigh. Perhaps it is is a sign I should spend more time in the garden.
    We own woodlands close by and you have inspired me to go this weekend (weather permitting) to see what is blooming.

  7. I often complained about how rocky our soil is but the one benefit that I've come to see is that voles are not prevalent in the main garden, likely for that very reason. Our hilltop, however is a different story since the soil up there is much less rocky - a blessing and a curse, as it turns out.

  8. I'm featuring a wildflower with a mottled leave on my blog, too. Come and see!

  9. It's a true beauty! I don't have that Trillium in my garden, but maybe I'll try to add it to the wild area where the other Trilliums are. Sorry to hear about the vole damage. I have voles here, too, but the rabbits are much more of a problem. I've been using lava rock and wire fencing around new plants to protect them from rabbits, voles, chipmunks, and other critters. By the way, your photos of T. cuneatum are magnificent.

  10. So sorry to hear about the voles. I hope you can find a solution and eradicate them. What a nuisance!

  11. Voles have been a huge problem in our area for the last two years. Hopefully, they'll be in a down cycle this year! Even all the outdoor cats didn't make a dent in their numbers, apparently, last year--tunnels everywhere....

  12. I know I'll always learn something interesting about wildflowers here on Clay and Limestone!

  13. Trilliums in bloom here but no sign of hepatica or bloodroot. I suspect the drought conditions we have had the last 2 years have done them in.

  14. can't get Mr Linky to work?



"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson