The Power of Three: Trillium Walk at the Huntsville Botanical Garden

For some people, it’s not spring until they have seen their first bluebird.  For others, spring hasn’t sprung until you don’t have to cover up your daffodils to protect them from frost.  For me, the sure sign of spring is the sight of a trillium in bloom.

We’ve mentioned a few times that Ruth is quite fond of bluebells, and we really enjoy our spring walks and the wildflowers that dot the trailsides.  They have become old friends to us — from the showy phloxes, shooting stars, and trout lilies to even the humble unwanted grape hyacinth — but the wildflower that always catches our attention has three leaves, and if in bloom, three sepals and three petals.  Around here, we have a pretty good representation of the trillium genus, with Sweet Betsy, twisted trillium, and lemon trillium growing in profusion on many local trails.  On our visits to the Smokies, we’ve also enjoyed large-flowered trillium, the glorious painted trillium, and my personal favorite, the diminutive charmer known as Catesby’s trillium.

Various maladies, work schedules, social engagements, and uncooperative weather have kept us off the trails these last few weeks, so I was rarin’ to go when I had a small window of time to attend a plant ID walk of the trillium collection at the Huntsville Botanical Garden.  Ruth and I have been to the Garden several times this spring, and we always make a beeline for the Holmes Trillium Garden to see what’s in bloom.  The plant ID walk was free with admission to the garden, and I knew that the guide for this particular walk would be a special treat — none other than Mr. Harold Holmes, the person responsible for starting the trillium collection at the HBG.

I joined a small group in the Visitor’s Center and Harold struck up a conversation with me, asking me what I knew about trilliums.  I knew three things about trilliums, I said, and after telling him those three things I found out that one of them was wrong!  So I knew I was going to learn a lot, which was great news.

As is often the case in the Rocket City, Harold was a retired missile guy who was looking for a hobby.  His wife said she wanted him to plant some native trilliums around the house, and he did some research and found the topic to be so fascinating that he built an amazing trillium garden at his house.  Actually, he didn’t volunteer that much about his own personal garden, but I’ve heard about it from some of the “grubbers” — volunteers at the HBG.  Anyway, he approached the HBG about starting a trillium collection in 2006.  He explained what he had in mind, and mentioned that it might take a while to get a good collection started, since it can take 7-10 years for a trillium to mature enough to bloom.  The HBG management eyed him warily and asked him what would happen to the collection if he didn’t live that long.  That’s a flinty bunch, those garden managers!  Luckily for all of us, Harold is still applying his scientific skills to the study of the genus, and the HBG has the nation’s most extensive collection of eastern North American trilliums.  Yep — we’re number one!

Twisted toadshade (Trillium stamineum)

I could use the cliche and say that Harold has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about trilliums, but that’s not true — I don’t think he’s forgotten anything.  We walked down to the Mathews Nature Trail trillium collection as Harold told us that there are two main types of trilliums — toadshades (subgenus Phyllanthereum), which have mottled leaves and flowers that do not grow on stalks; and wake-robins (subgenus Trillium), which do not have mottled leaves, and have flowers that grow on stalks.  The most common ones I’ve seen on the trails in north Alabama are the trillium cuneatum (Sweet Betsy) and trillium stamineum (twisted trillium).

Harold pointed out several specimens in bloom, and told us that the collection that is known as the Holmes Trillium Garden is actually made up of several smaller collections.  Some are memorial gifts to the Garden, some are donated by other trillium enthusiasts, and some are special purpose collections used for research.  A few of them are candidates to be declared as new species, or are rare.  At the time of my visit, more of the toadshades were in bloom, such as the lemon, reclining, and Louisiana toadshades.  Toadshades vary quite a bit, from flower color (Louisiana is bi-colored, for example) to leafstalk height (reclining grows just barely above the ground), to leaf shape (lance-leaf has pointier leaves).  Most toadshade leaves are mottled and fade after pollination, but not so for the splotch-leaf toadshade.  And for some species, the flower odor is a telling characteristic — either pleasantly fragrant (Sweet Betsy) or pungently fetid (stinking toadshade).  Odors are very fleeting, though, and can usually only be detected during pollination (just a few days) and on warm days.  And though trilliums generally follow the rules, Nature is chaotic — some trilliums can actually have more than three leaves, and a few species break the mottled leaves/no flower stalk pattern.

This was much more than a plant ID walk, though.  Harold told us about his research in propagation of trilliums, growing them from seeds or by manipulating the rhizome to encourage growth.  He has in some cases gotten plants to flower in about half the usual time.  He had placed a few posters along the walk to show some of this process, and had a tub full of 3-year-old “babies,” showing their characteristic three leaves but years away from blooming.  It turns out that what I had thought was the entire trillium collection was only one part, as there are many more trillium beds toward the back of the garden, north of the Bush Azalea Trail.  These research collections are the site of science in action, as various propagation techniques are trialled here.  Trilliums are also raised in the Garden’s greenhouses, for scientific research, for display, and more than a few for the Garden’s annual plant sale (coming up April 13-15, with an early-bird day on April 12 for Garden members).

I learned so much in two hours!  Harold’s self-deprecating sense of humor, personified in the “Trillaholic” cap he was wearing, kept things entertaining, and it was a privilege to listen to someone so enthusiastic and knowledgeable.  I know a lot more than three things about trilliums now — such as they can live 50-70 years, deer love to eat them, and ants are crazy about trillium seeds.

Bent wake-robin (Trillium flexipes)

And as it turned out, it was my lucky day.  Harold had potted two bent wake-robins as door prizes, and thanks to my sharing a birth month with him, I was a lucky winner!  After getting some tips on how to transplant it (I mean seriously — when a trillaholic gives you a specimen from the nation’s best trillium collection, you’d better not go home and bungle it), I brought my prize home and promptly planted it on a north-facing slope, near some azaleas (Harold tends to pop trilliums near azaleas in the Garden).

So word to the wise — the first two weeks of April tend to be the peak time for seeing trilliums in Garden.  Let’s hope for good weather!


Quick Look: Short Springs Natural Area


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Trail Name: Machine Falls Trail

Location: Short Springs State Natural Area, Tullahoma, Tennessee

Length:  roughly 1.6 miles to Machine Falls, loop

Rating: Beginner

Points of interest: Machine Falls, wildflower glades

Blog Post: Sweet Spring: Short Springs Natural Area

Notes: Easy, short trail to a beautiful waterfall tucked into a ravine filled with spring wildflowers.  Others trails in the same natural area lead to smaller waterfalls and more wildflowers.  The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation calls Short Springs “one of the very best spring wildflower locations in the state,” and for good reason!

GPS Track: Short Springs

Things are not always what they seem: Cutchenmine Trail

After what seemed like weeks and weeks of rain, this past weekend promised to be a gorgeous one. A little chilly maybe, but rain-free. Chet and I had gone to the Huntsville Botanical Garden on Saturday afternoon and noticed that many of the native wildflowers were starting to bloom, so I started looking around for a wildflower hike. It’s a bit too early to get out and see masses of flowers, but I do love these first very early spring days. The woods are still mostly sleeping and brown which makes the few delicate early spring blooms really stand out. I searched around for recommended wildflower hikes that we’ve not already done a million times, and came up with a surprising one: Cutchenmine Trail in Lake Guntersville State Park. It’s not someplace that immediately came to mind as a wildflower haven, but we haven’t actually ever hiked it, so we decided to check it out.

The Cutchenmine Trail follows an old road bed, supposedly built by a man named Cutchen who wanted a more direct route to get out coal from his mine. Despite the name, the mine itself isn’t a feature you pass on this trail. Still, a hike beside the lake with the promise of wildflowers and some bird spotting – maybe even an eagle! – was enough to make this my choice for the weekend. I’d read online that there was parking at the trailhead, but that it was somewhat limited, so Chet and I parked at the Park Office parking lot just across the bridge over Short Creek. That added a good .4+ miles each way to our overall hike, but for me finding an easy-to-get-in-and-out-of parking spot is worth a little extra walking. For future reference, there are also restrooms attached to the Park Office. Often our hikes don’t start anywhere near restroom facilities so this was noteworthy. Once we got to the trailhead, there was one car parked in a gravel area with room enough for maybe 3 more cars, so I guess I was too pessimistic about my parking options on a Sunday morning.


The first thing we noticed at the trail head was the overflowing garbage can right next to the trail sign. It was not the best introduction to a trail and I was afraid that we were in for depressing and trashy hike. However, just a few steps past the garbage can, we spotted the first of the wildflowers: common blue violets, slender toothwort, spring beauty, and the leaves of some kind of trillium not yet in bloom. That was a good start!

Soon, we crossed a bridge that had both a ramp and stairs as the exit on the far end. I’m guessing that the ramp was put in place for bikers as this is a popular beginners mountain bike trail. The ramp slopes oddly toward the water, which might be fun on a bike, but for me, I took the stairs. Across the bridge,  the blue blazed trail heads up a hill and we spotted more wildflowers: star chickweed, rue anemone, a May apple almost in bloom, cut leaf toothwort and more trillium – these with not-quite-yet-open buds. We also spotted quite a bit of red buckeye, which isn’t technically a wildflower, but it was in bloom and we knew what it was so we made note of it as well.

We’d gone less than a quarter of a mile, and had identified 8 flowers already! Readers of this blog may know about our longstanding tradition about wildflower spotting.  The rules are simple: if we identify 10 plants, we earn ourselves an ice cream. We were almost there already!

The trail climbs and falls a bit as it works its way down the south side of King Hollow and back towards the mouth of Short Creek. At the end of the hollow, the trail takes a broad curve left to follow Short Creek upstream. This part of the trail was mostly level, and was cut back enough from the waterline that we had no problems with a boggy trail, even after the never-ending rains of February. This did mean, though, that we were back into the dry winter woods again with fewer wildflowers to catch our eye. Somewhere along here we started noticing that the blue blazes were sometimes orange blazes with a bit of blue daubed over the top, and sometimes they were just straight up orange blazes. No matter – you really can’t make a wrong turn on this trail so don’t let the blaze colors worry you. We came to a spot with large boulders and tumbled rocks. On the lake side, there was a patch of leaves that looked like daffodils not yet in bloom. We decided that it just might have been a homesite of some sort. Just a little ways down the trail we spotted more trillium, these in full bloom, and a sprig of wintergreen. We were up to 9 – surely we’d find one more.

In reading trail descriptions, I’d read that at “about a mile” we’d come to a bridge, so I’m guessing we were at a mile when we came to a lovely curving bridge over a dry creek bed. Just after this bridge, the trail climbs up a hill and then levels out for a stretch before easing back down to water level again. We kept our eyes open for birds, hoping for herons, egrets, or maybe even an eagle but the only thing we saw was a smaller bird of some sort. I’m terrible at bird-spotting – Chet and I joke about how all birds to us are just “blurry splotchets” – so I don’t know what it was, but it definitely wasn’t one of the ones we were looking for.


Again going on the trail descriptions I’d read, I told Chet that the trail ended at “a dry creek bed.” As we got closer to what felt like the end of the trail, we crossed a small creek that actually had water flowing in it, and then could hear rushing water from a substantial creek ahead. It turned out to be a pretty wide expanse of rushing water – certainly not dry at all! Color me confused. Then I looked at the Guntersville Park map  — the NAME of the creek is “Dry Creek.” It seemed substantial enough that I can’t imagine it ever being dry, but apparently it often is in the summer, hence the name.

We sat and enjoyed a bit of a snack and watched the water tumble over the rocks. Chet kept eyeing a patch of bright green up the bank on the other side of the creek. He’d brought a massive telephoto lens to take bird pictures, so he pulled that out to see if he could figure out what the green patch was. It looked like trout lilies! Here in Huntsville, the only place I know of where trout lilies bloom is on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Wildflower Trail on Monte Sano.  I’ve never seen them anywhere else, so they seemed like a rare thing to find. With this as motivation, we decided we’d wade across the creek. Now, it was a nice day – I’d even taken off my fleece and was hiking just in a long sleeved top and jeans. However, that water was pretty dang cold. We always seem to do this, Chet and I. Usually we do our winter water crossing in February, so I guess we did a bit better this year by waiting until March, but still – brrrr! We’d not packed water shoes or hiking poles, so we just went barefoot, and improvised with some dead fall sticks we picked up to help steady us in the pretty strong current. We made it without falling or dropping electronics in the water, so I’m calling it a success.


On the other side we found what was indeed a large swath of trout lilies, interspersed with toadshade trillium, violets, and toothwort. It was actually such a carpet of them that we had a hard time figuring out where to put our feet so that we wouldn’t be crushing some lovely bloom. It was a great way to wrap our 10 wildflowers and earn our ice cream. When I got back home, I did some research and discovered that trout lily is actually fairly common in its range, which goes from Alabama to Ontario, west into Missouri and Oklahoma, and north to Minnesota. Not so rare after all!

Our hike back was just retracing our steps and was uneventful. We still saw no birds, but passed quite a few hikers – I counted 13 including one large family that had all ages from babe in arms to grandparents out enjoying the weather.

At home, I was determined to see if I could find any evidence of the mine. Google maps was no help – it doesn’t even show the Park Office or the trailhead, much less any indication of an old mine. I tried to find it on a US topo map site that had maps of the area as far back as 1936. No luck. Then we hit paydirt. Chet found an old survey map of the area online, which clearly shows that the land we’d been hiking on was once owned by a family named “Critcher.” FW Critcher and Mrs. H Critcher are marked as landowners of property just north of Dry Creek on a map of Marshall County from 1909. A little more googling turned up an obituary for a Col. James Critcher. Col. Critcher died in 1893 in his home “near Martling” (which is a community in the area), having lived in Marshall County since 1836. It mentions that though he was a state representative – at least for a time also in the Senate – he also devoted his time to farming and, most notably for my purposes, to “opening coal veins on lands belonging to him and to his neighbors.” One more search turned up the fact that his wife’s name was Harriet – perhaps the Mrs. H. Critcher on the survey map from 1909. Is it possible that “Cutchenmine Trail” is misnamed? To me, it seems more likely that the mine was Col. Critcher’s, and the road and subsequent trail should have borne his name as well.

So there you have it. We’d found a trashy trail that turned out to be a treasure of wildflowers, that used blue blazes except for when they were orange, that was prime viewing for eagles but netted us no sightings of any birds, that ended in a dry creek that was anything but dry, that had a large stand of rare flowers that might not be so rare, and that might in the end be a trail named after a Mr. Cutchen who was really perhaps a Critcher. As Plato said (through Phaedrus) “things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” Usually that quote is used as a warning or an admonishment not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case for the most part it’s more like an assurance of things being better than you might expect!