Wildflowers of the Adirondacks:
Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)
Painted Trillium is a wildflower that sports a single white flower, splashed with bright pink above three blue-green leaves. This species is a member of the Lily family. It is one of two common trilliums in the Adirondack region, the other being the Purple Trillium.
The name "trillium" is from the Latin words "tri" (referring to the fact that the plant has three leaves and the flower has three parts) and "llium" (from the Latin liliaceous, referring to the funnel-shaped flower). The species name (undulatum) is from the Latin word meaning wavy-edged; this is a reference to the fact that the petals have wavy edges.
The plant is also referred to as Painted Lady (not to be confused with the Painted Lady butterfly) and Painted Wakerobin. The latter name reflects the fact that the species blooms about the same time the robins return in the spring.
Identification of Painted Trillium
Painted Trilliums grow eight to 20 inches tall. There is a single whorl of three leaves at the top of the stem. Each bluish-green, waxy leaf is 2½ to five inches long, broadly rounded at the base and tapering to a point.
The single flower appears on the top of the stalk, just above the whorl of three leaves. The flower is usually 2 inches wide. The wavy-edged petals are lance-shaped and have a tapered, pointed tip. The flower is white, with an inverted, deep pink V at the base of each petal. The flower has three green sepals and six pink-tipped stamens. Flowers appear when the plant is 4 to 7 years old or older.
In the Adirondack Mountains, Painted Trilliums usually bloom in May. A tally of flowering dates for the upland Adirondack areas compiled by Michael Kudish, based on data collected from the early seventies to the early nineties, lists the earliest flower date as 26 April, the median date as 9 May, and the latest date as 3 June. At higher elevations, Painted Trilliums bloom about three weeks later.
The flower is followed by fruit in early fall. The fruit is a fleshy, berry-like capsule that starts off green and changes to bright red.
Uses of Painted Trillium
The Painted Trillium has very limited human uses. Although one source claims that the leaves are edible when cooked, another indicates that the fruits, seeds, and rhizomes are generally considered to be poisonous to humans. The Algonquin reportedly used the flowers, sepals and leaves as a medication to accelerate the delivery of a child.
Wildlife Value of Painted Trillium
Painted Trilliums have limited value to wildlife. The plant is insect-pollinated. Trillium seeds have attached elaiosome – a fleshy structure that is rich in lipids and protein. This assists in the dispersal of seeds, since ants (attracted by the chemical emitted by the elaiosome) carry the seeds to their nest, where they eat the attachment and discard the seed, which later germinates. Yellow Jackets and other wasps are also attracted to the elaiosome. Painted Trillium plants reportedly are also palatable to deer.
Distribution of Painted Trillium
Painted Trilliums grow in eastern North America, south to Georgia. This species can be found in Canada from Ontario, Quebec, and the maritime provinces to Nova Scotia. Painted Trillium is listed as threatened in Kentucky, endangered in Michigan and Ohio, and exploitably vulnerable in New York State.
Painted Trillium is present in nearly all counties in New York State, including all counties within the Adirondack Park Blue Line.
Habitat of Painted Trillium
Painted Trillium grows in both full shade or semi-shade and prefers well-drained soil. This species can be found in deciduous and mixed wood forests, growing under northern hardwoods or conifers such as Eastern White Pine, Red Spruce, and Balsam Fir. Painted Trillium is most common in the northern and cooler parts of New York State.
In the Adirondack region, Painted Trillium is found in two major ecological communities: Beech-Maple Mesic Forest and Pine-Northern Hardwood Forest. Painted Trilliums may be seen on many of the trails at the Paul Smiths VIC. Painted Trilliums are particularly abundant on the western portion of the Heron Marsh Trail, between the floating bridge and the Heron Marsh boardwalk. You can also find Painted Trilliums on the Heaven Hill Trails, the Peninsula Nature Trails, and on the Loop Trail at Henry's Woods.
Michael Kudish. Adirondack Upland Flora: An Ecological Perspective (The Chauncy Press, 1992), pp. 25, 232.
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