White Trout Lily
Up to 8” long, elliptical basal leaves (2) that have pointed tips.
Leaves are mottled with brownish-purple spots and streaks.
White Dogtooth Violet
Family: Lily (Liliaceae)
Height: To 10” (25 cm)
Habitat: Dry, Deciduous Woods
Anyone who has seen a brown Brook Trout will understand the common name of this wildflower. The two leaves of the White Trout Lily are a mottled greenish-brown color and quite shiny. These markings resemble the coloring of a brown Trout. The flowers also tend to bloom at the time of the trout season opener further endorsing the given name. White Trout Lily is appropriately a member of the Lily family as it is “lily-like” in many ways. The plant grows from a deep-seated bulb, has smooth, elliptical leaves, and from its tall stem hangs a single pristinely white flower. Thus, ‘White Trout Lily’ is a very appropriate name for this spring ephemeral.
The scientific name is less fitting. The generic name Erythronium is Greek meaning red, which the White Trout Lily is not. The European species (E. denscanis) however is bright red and the source of the chosen name. The species name corrects this misnomer. Albidium is Latin meaning white, which suits this species of Trout Lily.
Adder’s Tongue, Rattlesnake Violet, Serpent’s Tongue: There are many theories behind the application of this name. The snake allusion may refer to the coloring of the leaves, the two leaves that appear before the flower mimicking two serpents or a snake’s forked tongue, or the protruding yellow stamen emerging from the white flower.
Fawn Lily: The markings on the leaves of the Trout Lily are said to resemble those on a young deer.
Scroufula Root: Trout Lilies were used to treat Scroufula, a skin disease.
Thousand Leaf: Colonies of leaves will appear before the flowers actually bloom.
White Dogtooth Violet: The name Violet was incorrectly applied to many unidentified white, purple, or blue wildflowers. The Trout Lily however, is not a violet. “Tooth” references the shape of the underground bulb, which has pointed corms.
The flowers of Trout Lilies contain nectar, which attracts two types of insects: those that would pollinate the flower and those that would rob it of its nectar. To this end, the flower is downward facing. This not only protects the pollen from being washed away by rain, but also prevents unwanted insects from stealing nectar. The Trout Lily is primarily pollinated by spring bumblebees. A queen bee will emerge in early spring in search of nectar with which to sustain her workers.
The nectar of the Trout Lily serves as nourishment for the hive and a glue to stick the pollen to the foraging queen. The Trout Lily is able to increase its chances of fertilization through the bees that use it for food.
The seeds of the Trout Lily are produced in June, but do not sprout until the next spring. The seeds are usually spread via insects that eat the elaisosome appendage of the seed and discard the rest to grow and produce more Trout Lilies. Seeds will develop a corm that will grow near the surface until it begins to slowly burrow into the ground away from its parent plant. Upon becoming deeply buried (usually 6-15”) the bulb will send out numerous clonal shoots extending from the parental line. Over time the bulbs of trout lilies will grow into extensive colonies often to the exclusion of other plants.
Not every corm will produce a flower, as evidenced by the roughly one-percent of flowers seen in a given season. Researchers theorize this is due to its clonal energy expenditure. Because the Trout Lily relies on corm over seed production, more of its energy (nearly 60%) is spent cloning itself rather than producing seeds which may be inviable. Trout Lilies generally produce only enough seeds to establish a new colony. Thus, for the first two to three years, a Trout Lily will only produce a single leaf. Thereafter two larger leaves will appear. It may take nearly seven years for a Trout Lily to produce a flower if indeed it ever blossoms.
Comparatively, Trout Lilies have not been used for as many medical remedies as other wildflowers. The crushed leaves and bulbs of the plant have been used externally as a poultice for treating skin wounds, inflammations, swellings, and ulcers. Scrofula, a type of tubecular infection involving the throat and lymph glands, was once treated topically with a Trout Lily poultice used by early people.Native Americans used the leaves in an infused tea to treat stomach aches and induce vomitting. Incidentally, the bulbs of Trout Lilies may be mildly to strongly emetic and should not be consumed unless properly prepared.
Edible Use: Native American tribes ate the boiled or roasted corms of Trout Lilies. The deeply buried bulbs are difficult to dig, have a bitter flavor, and may be toxic. This limited their value as a nutritional source. While some woodland animals rely on this species for food, Trout Lilies are more pleasing to look at than to eat.
Phosphorous: Trout Lilies are able to capture spring runoff and store phosphorous within its leaves (much more than most plants). When the plant dies, the leaves return the phosphorous to the soil in a form that can be used by other plants and vegetation surrounding the colony.