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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.