Trout Lily

For weeks I see this:

Trout Lily Forest

I get so accustomed to seeing no flowers that I forget to look for them.  Yesterday, though, a fairly large patch of bright yellow caught my eye!  The Trout Lilies are in bloom!Trout Lily

This flower has lots of common names.  Apparently some think the new purple shoots look like Adder’s Tongues.  Others think the underground corm looks like a dog’s tooth and therefore call it Dogtooth Violet (even though it is not in the violet family).  I’ve heard two rumors for my favorite common name, Trout Lily.  One is that the speckled design on the leaves resembles the design on Brook Trout.  Another is that the leaves come up just about the same time the Brook Trout start running in the nearby streams.

Trout Lily in the Sun

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) fascinates me for lots of reasons.

First, it is in the “guild” of flowers that botanists refer to as Spring Ephemerals.    The plants in this group are short-lived – ephemeral – sometimes only visible for one or two weeks.  They have very fast rates of photosynthesis allowing them to take advantage of the sun’s rays to store carbohydrates quickly before they are shaded by the deciduous trees under which they live.  Others in this guild include Spring Beauties, Dutchman’s Breeches, and Cut-leaved Toothwort.  Look for them now, for they won’t last long!

Second, they live in colonies.  It is rare to find a single Trout Lily.  Often, the forest floor is carpeted with the speckled leaves.  Trout Lilies spread vegetatively underground and colonies can be large and very old – sometimes as old as the trees that tower above them.

Trout Lily Range MapThird, reproduction is accomplished through a couple of means besides spreading underground.  There’s the “normal” way we learn about as early as grade school:  Flowers, which must be pollinated, produce seeds.  We call that “sexual” reproduction.  But in the event that pollinators are deterred by cold and rainy spring weather, Trout Lily has an “asexual” backup system.  Some plants may produce a fleshy bud called a dropper at the end of a long, fragile, white stem called a stolon attached to the base of the parent corm.


Fourth, seed dispersal is aided by ants.  This is really clever.  Each seed has a small protuberance called an elaiosome that contains oils and possibly sugars that are attractive to ants but has nothing to do with germination.  The ant carries the seed off to its nest, eats the elaiosome, then carts the seed off to the garbage dump section of the underground home where it is surrounded by other wastes.  Of course, one organism’s waste is another’s fertilizer.  (There are other flowers that use this trick…  some species of trillium, for example.)

Trout LilyFifth, the six regular parts aren’t petals OR sepals.  They are called tepals – undifferentiated forms between petal and sepal.  (Some sources say that the flower has three sepals and three petals.)  Either way, they look like they have six petals…  But they don’t.

Sixth, it can take up to eight years for an individual plant to reach sexual maturity.  If you look closely at a colony of Trout Lilies, you will find that only plants with two leaves will produce a flower.

Seventh, Trout Lily shows up in Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants.  The authors claim the greens can be boiled for ten minutes and served with vinegar and the corms can be boiled for twenty minutes and served with butter.

Trout Lily TrioAnd finally, it also appears in Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs with a variety of uses.

Learn More:

  • Most of the information for this post came from a fascinating article I found online from the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society.  (source)
  • Do your own Internet search and you will get lots and lots of hits for Trout Lily.  It seems to be a favorite subject among wildflower enthusiasts.

13 thoughts on “Trout Lily

  1. These look quite similar to the Glacier Lily we have in the western states which is also called Dogtoothed Violet by many. The USDA, always out of step, calls them “Avalanche-Lily” (Erythronium grandiflorum).

  2. I can see why it’d be a favorite subject – it’s a beautiful flower! We have a similar lily, Fawn Lily (Erythronium albidum), that I have yet to find in the wild. Great post, and it’s nice to see spring peeping up in the rest of the country, as it’s on its last legs here.

  3. Around here, the trout lily (dogtoothed violet or whatever you call it) does bloom about the same time trout season starts. But I would have thought the flower would have named long before the start of a regulated fishing season. As to it looking like a brook trout–well, not to me.

    Carolyn H.

  4. Your information is very helpful. We need to check to see how many leaves our plants have. We’ve never seen them bloom. My Aunts bloomed once and that was it. I hope you get a picture of the dropper. I would like to see what I am suppose to be looking for. Thank you for the information.


    Please don’t use my last name

  5. Trout lilies are one of my favorites, too, though in the Ozarks we have a species that’s entirely yellow including the anthers (Erythronium rostratum, I think).

    Down in our woods there is one pickup truck-sized rock where the trout lilies somehow became established in the leaf litter and soil that had accumulated on top. Now, the entire top of the rock is covered in trout lily bloom — briefly. It’s an impressive sight that I’ve never able to fully convey in a photograph.

    Thanks for all the great info. Tomorrow I will begin my search for the elusive dropper, though it may be too late for me to find one this year.

  6. Pingback: Spring Ephemeral Debate « A Passion for Nature

  7. I have these in my yard for the first time, as far as I know. I have been wondering what they were! We lost a good many trees in Super Storm Sandy — perhaps the increased sun has inspired them!

  8. Pingback: Looking at Flowers: the Trout Lily and the Black Parrot Tulip « elizabeth winpenny lawson …writing as a naturalist

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