Saturday, February 16, 2008

Spring Ephemeral Plant Profile: Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)

A very early spring bloomer here in Georgia, Trout lily can be found in small groups of a few dozen, but more often forms large colonies. This herbaceous perennial prefers rich woods with slightly acidic well drained soil in semi-shade. Native to Eastern N. American it can be found from New Brunswick to Florida and west to Ontario and Arkansas.

Propagation is by seed or transplantation of the corm in fall. In nature, the Trout lily is pollinated by ants that also may disperse the seed. However, a plant grown from seed may take up to eight years to mature and reproduce. If propagating by corms, these should be planted deep for their size (three to five inches) and you may expect the colony to multiply from offshoots of this corm.

This plant can best be identified by two distinctive basal leaves. These are a shinny dark green and mottled purple. The leaves grow approximately three inches long and one inch wide. Overall, Trout lily will reach a height of four to ten inches.
Flower color can range from very pale to bright yellow shows brownish streaks on the sepals, which may be lighter than the primary petals. In size it can be up to three inches across with six tepals (3 petals and 3 sepals) folding upwards. When the petals are fully reflexed, the bloom is approximately one inch across.

The name Trout lily derives from the speckled leaves, which remind us of a speckled trout. Also known as Dogtooth violet (referring to the shape of the bulb), this plant is definitely a member of the lily family (Liliaceae) and not a violet. Other common names include Adder’s tongue, Serpent’s tongue, Yellow Adder’s tongue, Yellow fawn-lily and Yellow snowdrop.

Trout lily is reported to have been used by many Native American groups as a contraceptive, and as fish bait. However, it is known to have strong emetic properties and not recommend consumption by humans or pets.

A similar plant in appearance, the white flowered Trout lily is actually a different species E. Albidum, and is quite rare.

Over the next few weeks, I will provide plant profiles for several other spring ephemerals native to the United States. In addition, I would be happy to entertain any questions you might have, and to hear about the experience of others around the country who are growing these plants – especially if in urban gardens.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Best of Spring

"No winter lasts forever. No spring skips its turn. April is a promise that May is bound to keep. And we know it.”
Hal Borland’s memorable quote is understandable for a man born in Nebraska and who lived most of his adult life in New England. Here in Georgia, his April begins in mid-February. Now I start walking in my garden each day to see if any spring ephemerals have burst through the earth. The daffodils are already putting on a pretty respectable show and by March, I will have Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), Toadshade trillium (T. sessile), and Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooming.

What do I mean by spring ephemeral? A purist would tell you that spring blooming herbaceous plants such as bloodroot, jack-in-the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and most of the genus Trillium don’t qualify. While they bloom around the same time as true spring ephemerals, these pretenders retain leaves and ripen fruit well after the forest leaf canopy closes off sunlight to the ground.

Spring ephemerals then are early plants that complete their annual cycle in the space of a few weeks – typically six to eight. Thriving on the sunlight available before the over and understory trees and shrubs leaf out, they emerge, grow leaves, flower, are pollinated and drop seed, then go dormant in rapid succession. Interestingly these plants are rarely annuals, but rather perennial plants that return year after year. Many attract ants, which disperse their seeds.

It is likely that your grandmother called these plants wildflowers, and many still use this term however, it is ambiguous at best. Some think of wildflowers as these spring ephemerals while others apply the word to any plant that grows wild. Today we prefer to differentiate between native species that were naturally occurring in the area prior to European colonization, and exotic or introduced species. Further, we designate some plants are invasive species meaning that they out-compete other plants. Naturalized plants are those that have been introduced to an area, but are now considered by the public as native (Honeysuckle Lonicera japonica and Mimosa Albizia julibrissin) are a good example of this confusion here in the south. But I digress.

Though spring ephemerals bloom earliest here in the south, those of you from northern climates will see many of the same plants in April and May. One of my personal favorites is the Trout lily (Erythronium americanum). Tomorrow I will post a profile of this wonderful plant.

All photos for this article were obtained through Forestry Images, a joint project of the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service. Please consider joining. It’s Free! And, you can help a great free online resource for plant images grow and evolve.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Scribd NOT Scribed

Oops. That would be Scribd.

Georgia Gardening Articles Online

Just a quick note to let you know that I’ve started posting previously published articles I wrote for Georgia Gardening Magazine on Scribed. Scroll down through the items on the right hand sidebar to find the links. These articles have been posted with the permission of the publisher, and retain traditional copyright protection. More coming soon…