Three broad, whorled, wavy-edged toothless leaves that are
diamond shaped with pointed tips.
Family: Lily (Liliaceae)
Height: To 24” (60 cm)
Flowering: April - July
Habitat: Shaded, Wet, Deciduous Woods
Toxicity: Do Not Pick; Roots and Berries are Toxic
Nodding Trillium is a very appropriate name for this spring ephemeral. Nodding obviously refers to the curvature of the stem and downward facing flower. Trillium comes from the Latin word tres meaning “three” which describes the“threeness” of the plant. Trilliums have three leaves, flowers with three petals and three sepals, six stamen, three stigma, a three-celled ovary, and berries with three ribs. Lillium is the Latin word for lily, which is fitting for a flower in the Lily family.
Its scientific name, Trillium cernuum, is also appropriate. Cernuum comes from the Latin word cernuus meaning drooping or nodding. This again refers to the position of the flower on the stem.
Beth Root, Birth Root: A name applied by pioneers who understood that Native Americans used the plant for various childbirth practices, including labor induction.
Much-Hunger: Alludes to the nourishment provided by the plant’s young leaves, which were gathered and eaten by early people.
Wake Robin: Nodding Trilliums are said to bloom at the time of the Robin’s return from migration heralding the beginning of spring.
The flowers of Nodding Trillium contain nectar that attracts insect pollinators. Upon fertilization, the flower forms pale-green berry-like capsules that house seeds until the pod ruptures at maturity. The seeds formed are perfectly adapted for insect distribution. Like many spring wildflowers, Nodding Trillium sows seeds via myrmecochery or ant farming. The seeds produced by this plant bear a tiny, fleshy appendage called an elaiosome coveted by ants and other small burrowing insects. The elaiosome is oily and rich in nutrients, including proteins, lipids, and sugars. The distribution, which is typically directed by ants, causes seeds to be carried great distances away from the parent plant into nests and underground holes. The insects then consume the elaiosome and discard the seed allowing a new Trillium to form. While most Trillium seeds are viable, this species of wildflower will not produce flowering plants until several years after sowing.
Though the roots are considered to be somewhat emetic, they also have astringent and antiseptic qualities recognized by Native people. Various tribes would use the roots topically to treat open wounds and sores. In some instances, a root mixture was used to treat internal bleeding, though the effectiveness of this remedy was never proven. Menomini Indians used freshly dug roots as a wet dressing for treating eye inflammation. Potawatomi and Chippewa Indians would use Trillium roots steeped in water for a variety of purposes. The solution was used to wash sore nipples, as ear drops, and occasionally as a treatment for rheumatism by injecting the tea into the affected area.
Trilliums were used to treat a variety of female ailments. Beyond its use in childbirth, the grated rootstock was made into a tea used to alleviate menstrual cramps.
Because today the roots and berries are considered toxic, Nodding Trillium is not used in current medical remedies.
Various wildflower field guides say that the young leaves of Nodding Trillium make nice additions to salads. The leaves are said to taste of raw sunflower seeds. The leaves may also be boiled with butter and vinegar for ten minutes as a type of Trillium spinach. After the flower blossoms, the leaves become bitter and inedible. Because the nutritional value of the plant is minimal and only the leaves are edible, Nodding Trilliums should be left undisturbed.
Incidentally, picking any part of the leaves or flower will destroy the plant. Studies have shown that increasing White-Tailed Deer populations have led to the destruction of Trillium in some areas. Because ephemeral flowers must produce enough starch and sugar to support the bulb over winter, grazing by herbivorous animals destroys its reserves. An ephemeral may not have enough time to replace those nutrients that were lost before the top story of the forest forms. Consequently, the flower will not bloom in the following year. Because Trilliums are a preferred source of nutrition by White-Tailed Deer, their numbers tend to decline in areas of high deer density.