For weeks I see this:
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!
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 (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.
Third, 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.)
Fifth, 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.
And finally, it also appears in Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs with a variety of uses.