Wakers of the Robins

For the longest time I thought there were only two kinds of trillium: red and white. Then I encountered painted trillium, which is sort of a combination of the first two: the petals are white except for the portions immediately around the stigma and stamens, which are varying shades of red. However, it turns out that there are over 40 species of trillium, distributed all over the United States.

Red trillium

The red trillium or Trillium erectum was the first species that I met up with, although I don’t remember where. Perhaps up in the Hudson Highlands, because it would have been unusual for me to be in the woods in April in New Hampshire, which was the first natural landscape that I knew as a child.

An undisturbed landscape is important to the persistence of trillium, which may be why I never saw it in “the woods” near any of my childhood homes. The plant that we see on the forest floor is technically a “scape,” meaning that it springs from a rhizome. The three “leaves” are actually bracts; the real leaves are wrapped around the rhizomes underground. It takes at least two years after germination for a plant to even send up bracts and sometimes longer for it to flower.

Deer are particularly attracted to trillium and will graze it heavily. Researchers at Illinois State University noticed that the density of deer populations could be reliably related to the average height of trillium. Because the deer eat the scapes before they have a chance to photosynthesize and transfer nutrients to the rhizomes, the plants become progressively smaller as the deer population grows.

Over collecting is the other threat to trillium species. None of the taxa have been successfully raised in a nursery, so any rhizomes or plants that one sees for sale have been collected from the wild. In many areas trilliums have become so rare that they have received protected status.

Alternating sepals and petals.

T. erectum is also called the wake-robin or stinking-Benjamin. The first name is a particularly curious name because it sounds peculiarly English and trillium are not found in Great Britain. However, Arum maculatum, a common plant of British hedgerows, is also called wake-robin. They do not at all alike, but both flowers have a fetid smell, that has been likened to the odor of rotting flesh. (The American and British robins share little more than a red breast, but that was enough to give Turdus migratorius the same common name as Erithacus rubecula.) The North American jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is also called the wake-robin, but here the resemblance to the Old World arum is visual; they are both members of the Araceae and have flowers that consist of a cowl-like spathe (“the pulpit”) and an erect spadix (“jack”).

According to one source, the bird is also called the “wake-robin” for its habit of being among the first to sing at the break of day. But naturalist John Burroughs called a collection of natural history essays on birds Wake-robin (1871). In the opening essay of the book “The Return of the Birds,” he alludes to the meaning of the name obliquely: “With me this flower is associated, not merely with the awakening of Robin, for he has been awake for some weeks, but with the universal awakening and rehabilitation of nature.” In other words, the name seems to refer to the arcane idea (preserved by Aristotle) that passerine birds hibernated during the winter and that the blooming of the flowers coincided with their stirring and appearance in the spring.

The other name of the red trillium, stinking Benjamin, begs the question “Who is this Benjamin guy?” No one seems to know. However, it turns out that Benjamin is a traditional name to apply to the youngest son in a family; in the Old Testament Benjamin was Jacob’s youngest son. In Quebec youngest sons are referred to as “benjamins” (lower case). Perhaps stinking Benjamin simply refers to the plants short stature; they tend to be about 8 inches tall.

White trillium

White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) are larger (as the specific name suggests) than red trillium. The petals over lap at the base to produce a funnel effect and the petals also largely conceal the sepals beneath them. In the red trillium the green sepals alternate with the red petals in the whorl. The white grandiflorum blooms are odorless.

The odor of T. erectum flowers attracts flies, which pollinate the species, but the seeds of T. grandiflorum attract ants, which carry them off in a form of dispersal called myrmecochory. This doesn’t seem like a very efficient way to expand a range, leading biogeographers to wonder how these species recovered from the last ice age. It certainly accounts for why I didn’t see them growing in the second-growth woodlots of my youth.


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