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A terrific forest find: blooming trillium

Another sure sign of spring is the blooming of trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). This charming wildflower brings inspiration and enchantment to the woodlands with the simplistic elegance of its three whorled leaves and large, three-petaled white flower with slightly ruffled edges. The large flowers measure 2-4 inches across and are white when they first bloom in April and May, but often fade to pink with age. You often find trillium blooming in the understory of deciduous or mixed coniferous-deciduous trees, before the leaves of the trees are fully developed. They like cool and shade and go dormant with the heat of the summer.

One can only admire and enjoy trillium plants more when finding how difficult it is to plant them and the probability of them surviving. While trillium plants can live for 25 years or more, they usually do not flower until they are several years old. A population of trillium expands slowly and are a favorite source of food for deer, and repeated grazing over several years will kill the plant. Picking a trillium flower does not necessarily kill the plant but damage will result if the green leaves are taken as well. The green leaves are needed for photosynthesis and if picked will not re-grow until the following year. This may not happen at all depending on the size of the rhizome.

Trillium is one of the perennials that is not supposed to be transplanted. Cultivation of trillium is slow, requiring several years from seed to flowering. Ants, flies and beetles pollinate trillium flowers and seeds are dispersed over small distances often by ants. Chipmunks that take the fruit also help disperse seeds. Trillium seeds require consistently moist conditions to survive but remain viable for many years provided they are in moist soil. Gardening with trillium teaches the rewards of patience: after the seeds germinate, roots grow the first year, a single seed leaf the second year, and the first true leaf the third year. The familiar three-whorled leaves often do not develop until the fourth or fifth year and may require two to three more years to bloom. Trillium are poor competitors and will usually die out if planted close to an aggressive plant. The great white trillium grows 8-12 inches tall and over several years can become a patch up to 18 inches wide. So if you see a mass of many trillium you know that many years have gone into making such a display. Enjoy it!

If you have an ideal location and would like to grow trillium in you garden, for the above reason you will probably be more successful if you purchase your plants from a nursery rather than try to dig some up from the woods. They require fertile, humus-rich, well-drained soil and grow best in areas with morning sun and afternoon shade or the bright shade beneath deciduous or very tall conifers trees. Hot afternoon sun will burn their foliage and in heavy shade they do not flower well. Jung Seed has several wildflowers and trilliums are one of them. They are very reasonably priced, but know that they are a bit of a challenge to grow.

Remember, they will grow

Looking at our perennial gardens in the spring can be deceiving because after you get the debris cleaned out, the plants are small and it looks like you have all kinds of room in that garden. Perhaps you could add one or two more plants. However, remember last summer when that same garden looked so packed and crowded you knew you had to remove a few things. It will be the same this year, those small plants become huge. A couple important things to keep in mind is that crowding causes stress in plants and encourages diseases to develop. Air flow in your garden is important for healthy perennials because the air and wind can move through the plants so that moisture is able to evaporate from leaves and stems. Always maintain some space between different varieties of perennials in your garden, not only for air flow, but because it makes each plant stand out and better present itself. To be able to see the base of the flower bed and the mulch only adds to the presentation of each plant and the beauty and health of the whole garden.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.