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Trout Lily

Updated: Jun 5

By Sara Wright

I eagerly look forward to these ephemeral wildflowers each year because they appear just after the bloodroot and trillium break ground, popping up from leaf litter. This year, except in the lower field, the others have not yet appeared although it is the end of April, probably reflecting the late snow.

Trout lilies can grow in huge clusters that can completely cover a forest floor. It can take hundreds of years to create these large clusters. Corms (bulb-like) will extend root-like structures called stolons into the surrounding soil. At the end of the stolon appears a tiny bud that will eventually grow into a genetically identical corm. Massive clonal colonies of trout lilies develop slowly. The corms are sterile up to about the seventh year and then produce only one mossy-brown leaf and no flower but eventually when mature, plants will have two mottled leaves and a single delicate nodding six petaled yellow blossom. Each flower has both male and female reproductive organs.  Exquisitely beautiful, they are perhaps my favorite lilies of all. Colonies are also spread by runners and the seeds that each blossom produces. 

Like all wildflowers these trout lilies also have a complex relationship with the underground mycelial network that we know nothing about. Trout lilies (like bloodroot) also have a symbiotic relationship with ants, known as myrmecochory. The ants from the genus Aphaenogaster are attracted to the lipid-rich gummy appendages that are  attached to the seeds (elaiosomes). The wily ants carry the seeds back to their colonies where the elaiosomes are eaten by their larvae. Then the ants deposit the uneaten seeds underground in moist places. Eventually, those seeds will germinate to help increase the size of the colony. The ants also protect the seeds from predation. If these ants vanish, populations of trout lilies will drop by 70 percent, just one more threat these ephemerals face.  

 Trout lilies (like bloodroot) also have a symbiotic relationship with ants, known as myrmecochory.

The ‘experts’ assure me that trout lilies grow in forests in eastern Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia, but I have found colonies growing in open fields like the one below my house. Most of mine prefer some shade. I used to find masses of them flourishing in sunny roadside ditches, but sadly those days are now long past.

Most trout lilies are single-leafed plants and won't produce a bloom, so, if you are fortunate to find a clump of flowers you have discovered a very old colony. It is against the law to pick, move, or harvest these fragile spring ephemerals because commercial logging, loss of habitat, and other human actions have destroyed their homes. If a person attempts to remove some trout lilies, the plants will die.

The trout lily we are most familiar with in the Northeast is the yellow variety known as Erythronium americanum. Our local version tends to have yellow flowers though sometimes the back of the flower or the pollen-bearing structures (anthers) can be red. Most of their life cycle appears in that brief period between snow melt and leaf out.

Protecting forests, edge places, small moist fields that border mixed woodlands like mine from logging, machine use, and heavy human traffic and pollution also protects all of the plants and animals that depend on prolonged periods without disturbance to thrive, including centuries old trout lily groves. If you are fortunate to witness this glorious little flower on your travels through field and forest, give thanks because we may not have them with us for much longer.

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