Trillium time means spring has sprung in Mississippi

Published 2:34 pm Friday, March 29, 2024

When I see trilliums popping up in my wooded backyard, it’s a sure sign that spring has arrived. I wasn’t familiar with the pretty plants until we moved into our house a few years ago. We have patches of untamed woods on our acreage, and seemingly overnight, our small wilderness was dotted with hundreds of little plants, each about six inches tall, with three large, distinct leaves. Later, flowers emerged, exactly in the center, in shades of red and white.

I asked my husband about them, and he informed me these cute little plants were called trilliums, and that I shouldn’t pick them, because they were protected. I was entranced by them, and felt a sense of respect for these interesting, dainty plants. Since then, we’ve discovered that most trilliums that grow in our backyard aren’t really protected, but it’s too late for us. We feel we should protect them anyway.

Trilliums belong to the lily family. According to the U.S. Forest Service, there are 43 species of trillium worldwide, with 38 of them appearing in the U.S. Mississippi is home to eight species of trilliums.

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As the first three letters of its name would suggest (tri), the trillium’s flower arrangement grows in threes. There are three flower petals, three sepals (small, leaf-shaped outer green parts enclosing the flower), six stamens and three “leaves.” The trilliums have broad green leaves, with some a dark green with lighter green spots, some a medium green and some green with yellow spots on them. I found out the white flowers will turn pink after they have been pollinated or as they age. There is a species of red flowers that is endangered, but it is supposed to only grow in parts of Georgia and South Carolina.

The plants actually produce no true leaves or stems above ground. What we think of as the “stem” is an extension of the root. What we call “leaves” are actually “bracts,” although most people just refer to them as “leaves.” There are “pedicellate trilliums” in which the flower blooms from an extension of the stem, and “sessile trilliums,” in which the flower appears to sprout directly from the center of the leaves. We have sessile trilliums in our backyard.

Although pretty, some species apparently aren’t the type of flower you’d want to pick, even if it isn’t protected. One type of trillium, called “Mississippi River wakerobin,” reportedly smells like “wet dog” and attracts mostly carrion flies, beetles and gnats. That doesn’t sound like something anyone would want in a vase on the kitchen table. I’m not sure if this is the species of red trilliums I see in our backyard, but I think I’ll leave them alone and not find out.

Although very delicate, if left undisturbed, trilliums can live for up to 25 years. They appear in late March and go dormant in early summer. Over time, the trilliums will multiply. It makes me wonder how the trilliums found my back yard and how many years they have cycled through their bloom/hibernate cycle.

In ancient history, the trillium was used for medicinal purposes. Since Walgreen’s is only a short drive away, I don’t think I need to know anything more about that.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to have wild trilliums growing in your yard, and would really like to have some, there are several nursery-cultivated species available for purchase. We have so many in our backyard, I can’t imagine actually purchasing more.

I guess you could say I have a trillium sanctuary in my backyard. I will never pick one and I will always appreciate their presence. Each year I look forward to their sudden arrival and the pretty blooms that eventually appear. It’s a happy sign that spring is here to stay, and what a good thing that is!

Sally Green is a reporter for The Vicksburg Post. She can be reached at