Trillium by Seed

With garden travel and GFWC meetings claiming nearly all of my time in the past month, it’s been a good while since I’ve been able to write for pleasure.  This week, with a family wedding within sight, is no exception, but something happened yesterday I can’t wait to tell you about.

Despite our recent hot and dry weather, it occurred to me that the terrestrial orchids might be flowering in the woodland, so I headed towards the river to look. I didn’t find any orchid blooms, but I did notice that many of the Little Sweet Betsy Trilliums (T. cuneatum) are dying back.  When I bent down to examine one, I reached out and touched the large, burgundy seedpod that had formed at the tip of the stalk, and the pod separated from the plant.  In fact, it easily squished between my fingers like an overripe banana.


Trillium cuneatum dying back as they typically do in July, including a seedpod that squished between my fingers and a second plant with an intact pod.

I had never paid any attention to trillium seedpods in the past. What an amazing discovery!  I could see the pod was filled with 60 or more seeds, each about the size of a bb with a large elaiosome to one side.  An elaiosome is a lipid-rich structure eaten by ants that entices the insects to gather the seeds and move them away from the parent plant, aiding the germination and spread of the species.

What a bonanza! Dreams of thousands of tiny trilliums instantly popped into my head.  Sadly, the excitement lasted roughly 10 minutes—the time it took me to get back to the house, google “trillium grown from seed,” and read it takes nearly two years for seedlings to sprout.  This fun, I’m afraid, will have to wait until retirement, which is six (or more) years away.

I found a fabulous article about the process, however, on the Mt. Cuba Center website. Mt. Cuba is a botanical garden in Delaware (50 acres of display gardens and 500 acres of natural lands) devoted to native plants and ecosystems.  The fascinating piece on growing trillium from seed, written by William Cullina, Director of Horticulture at the Coastal Botanical Garden of Maine and previous Director of Horticultural Research for the New England Wildflower Society in Massachusetts, can be read here.


A closer look at the trillium seed, each with a large elaisome.

While I will not be growing trilliums from seed anytime soon, I plan to take Cullina’s advice to collect seeds and plant them in the woodland garden where I want to establish new colonies. Plus, I’m super excited to have this new info and eye-opening experience with one of my favorite plants.

24 thoughts on “Trillium by Seed

  1. Linda Butcher

    Thank you Marian…..we have a few trillium plants, & I’m going out to look at them right now to see if there are any seed pods left on them:)

    Here’s hoping.

    Linda Butcher

  2. pbmgarden

    Good luck with these seeds. Enjoyed and completely understood the squished banana simile. And how exciting to have a wedding on the horizon. Have fun.

  3. Christina

    Hopefully if you spread the seed where you want it, if conditions are right they will germinate and you’ll have your colony with very little work.

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Christina–It is so dry here, I’m worried about spreading the seed in what amounts to dust, not dirt. I’m putting it in ziplocks in the refrigerator for now (per Cullina’s advice) and will plant when the weather improves. Our 10 day forecast shows 95 F or above every day with little chance of rain.

  4. Mary Lou

    Fascinating – thanks for educating us. I wonder if the ants actually help plant the seeds when they return to the ant mound??

  5. Alison Piasecka

    Good to have you back! And I love those discoveries…they are really exciting and open up new possibilities…good to defeat the political pessimism, especially in Europe, with a miracle of nature.

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Alison–I’m keeping my eye on the motherland and hoping for the best. I’ll be in Dordogne, France in early September and am planning a trip to the Netherlands for May 2017.

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Pauline–The first spring we lived here I found a patch of Sweet Betsy with 18 blooms, plus a few smaller groups dotted around the woodland, all struggling to survive among invasive English ivy. As soon as the ivy was removed, trilliums began to pop up, but it will be years before they cover the hillside as they once did.

  6. fernwoodnursery

    Hello Marian, We propagate a large selection of trillium here at the nursery ( Rick is a long standing and excellent plant propagator). Let us know if you need any tips. Also, good advice from Bill Cullina and Maine Botanical, they are about an hr. away from our nursery Last year I taught a hypertufa building class there! They sure do get many, many visitors!Good luck with your Trillium! Denise

  7. susurrus

    So great to see the little trillium leaves, some already with the distinctive markings, on the Cullina link. I used to be very patient about growing things from seed and poured over various books of plant lore about the ways to treat different types of seeds. I once tried to grow trilliums in an outdoor frame, and they had started to emerge under the soil, but for various reasons I had to reluctantly abandon them. That’s a small, but lasting regret and why I always look at trilliums with extra pleasure when I do see them.

    Your decision to let nature take its course outside sounds very wise (combined with your marking system I’ve read about in an earlier post) and I’ll look forward to seeing them.

  8. Marian St.Clair Post author

    Susan–I admit I’m not a very patient person, but the idea of growing trillium from seed is very exciting to me and I hope to give it a try someday. I think an outdoor frame, as you mention, is bound to be the best bet.

  9. Carol Granger

    I just returned from an afternoon walk into the woods in NC. Earlier this year i had seen at least three varieties of trillium and made a mental note to return when summer came. Yes!! I collected 6 or 7 seed pods which were intact. I am drying them on a paper plate and deciding what to do next.
    Thanks for the article and comments on trillium, I am inspired to experiment with propagation. Any additional guidance or advice, please send my way.🐜


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