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!


2 thoughts on “The Power of Three: Trillium Walk at the Huntsville Botanical Garden

  1. I wanted to thank you personally for writing this article. It really is wonderful! You have a great way of providing information, experiences, and keeping the readers attention. The Garden has shared it on social media and we are going to add a link to it on one of our blogs. This is a great way to help people understand how wonderful Trilliums are and how much work goes into making them a Nationally Accredited Collection. Thank you!


  2. Oh, I knew I should have gone back for a picture of our native trillium! It is not very common here. We happen to have a few, but they are out of the way. I just happened to notice them while working in the area. Maybe I will go back to see if there are still some in bloom.


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