Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Treasure Trove of Trilliums

Vivid bouquets of flowers bedazzled this sunny Mother's Day weekend, showing up like unexpected flamenco dancers on the back deck. The chilly, rain-soaked weekend before this one offered a herbaceous banquet of a different sort, filled with native plants and greenery that flourished in soggy settings.

We spent that Saturday dodging downpours, slathered with mud as we dug up ferns on the forested property of friends whose home and gardens will soon be bulldozed to make way for a housing development. They also pointed out a few other dig-worthy plants--rhubarb, raspberries, heavenly bamboo--that it seemed a pity to leave behind. We drove home in a minivan packed with our new fronds (it's not easy to make new friends in a new neighborhood; fronds are quite a bit easier to come by).

The Sunday of that soggy weekend I enjoyed an early Mother's Day gift to myself: a "Tea and Trilliums" talk and tour at Cottage Lake Gardens, which is tucked right behind the library barely five minutes from my home.

Cottage Lake Gardens is perched on the shore of, not surprisingly, Cottage Lake, and is home to all of the world's 48 species of trillium, a lovely genus of wildflower native to North America and parts of Asia. Trilliums are named for their habit of sprouting threesomes: They have three leaves, three sepals (those green bits that surround the base of a flower), and three petals.

Tea, coffee, pastries, and fruit served up on antique Limoges china...I could've stopped right there. That was enough of a break from the daily grind.


Then, fortified with food as well as information about trilliums, we headed out into the rain to wend our way through the forested garden. There the trilliums reposed in groups along a meandering path, sharing the landscape with a wide variety of shade-loving plants.


What I found most fascinating about the trillium is just what a late bloomer it is. Not in terms of the season, mind you--it's one of the earliest bloomers when it comes to springtime (one of its nicknames is "wake-robin," because it's such an early riser it even wakes up the robin who's supposed to be the harbinger of spring). No, its peculiar late-blooming property is that about seven years pass before a trillium seed finally grows up enough to produce a flower.

The bulk of the plant takes the form of an underground, swollen stem called a rhizome. (If you've ever brought home a chunk of ginger from the grocery store, you've purchased a rhizome.)

Shoots from the rhizome poke up from the soil, with each shoot producing three leaves and a flower.

The flowers bloom for a few weeks, set seed, and are done for the season by the time other flowers are just thinking of getting out of bed.

This long adolescence and brief bloom, combined with the leaves' inclination to die back in dormancy during a hot, dry summer, puts an interesting spin on the whole notion of what, exactly, a plant is.

To the aboveground-dwelling human, a plant is leaves, flowers, fruit--the things we can see.

But I'd think a trillium would feel otherwise, if it had feelings. Its real self is a mole-like being that puts up a periscope of a flower and goes on a sunshine-buying spree with its leaves before returning to its underground digs and retiring with a brandy and a nice collection of books for the rest of the year.

First-year shoots (left) and older shoots (right)
It put me in mind of a 17-year cicada, which spends 17 years underground as a nymph, sipping from roots. Finally it bursts from the ground, climbs up a trunk, molts into its adult form, then spends about a month carousing, reproducing, dodging predators, and making a row before dying.

A cicada's short above-ground life seems puzzling to humans, but a trillium would understand it. It's the 17 years of subterranean life that's the real thing, not the brief party in the light of day.

Cicadas don't consort with trilliums, but other insects do. Pollinators of trilliums include beetles and ants. (An East Coast species, the red trillium, attracts these animals with a pungent odor that earns it charming nicknames such as “stinking Benjamin.") The most commonly encountered trillium in the Pacific Northwest, Trillium ovatum, puts on quite a show after it's been pollinated: Its lovely white petals turn increasingly deep shades of pink, transforming into a rich, velvety purple before the flower dies.

Beetle on wild trillium in a Redmond park
The plant offers ants not only protein bars in the form of pollen grains as reimbursement for pollination services, but also oily fast food attached to its seeds. These treats are called elaiosomes and are nutritious, calorific growths on the seeds.

Ants eagerly tote the seeds away from the trillium to share with larvae. The kids gobble up the elaiosomes while their indulgent elders toss the seeds on their own nutrient-rich junk piles outside the nest.

The trillium seeds, in a nice "Br'er Rabbit and the Briar Patch" twist, then happily take root in these middens. Pretty clever for a rhizome!