Lovely yellow, curvy flowers with funny speckled leaves are blooming or ready to bloom in the light-filled woodlands across the east. These large flowers grow in clumps here and there in moist woods from Nova Scotia to Florida and westward to Ontario, Minnesota, and Alabama.
Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) don’t grow much taller than your calves but they put on a spectacular show. They are a welcome sight after months of bare brown trees and gray winter skies. The low-growing plants receive sunlight because the forest tree canopy hasn’t leafed out.
Trout Lilies belong to the group of plants known as ‘ephemerals’. In early spring the tree canopy is open and sunlight can shine unobstructed down to the forest floor. Once the trees’ leaves grow large enough to shade the forest floor the ephemerals, including Trout Lily, are finished blooming. The leaves die and nothing is left above ground to mark the presence of the plants. These lilies can be seen for about two months before they disappear
If you hike in moist woods and spot Trout Lillies in bloom or a patch of their mottled leaves, here are some interesting facts to notice.
Note: A pair of binoculars will allow you to observe pollinators at work without scaring them away. A hand lens will help you see tiny plant parts and fine details.
Habitat: Trout Lilies are found in moist woods in light shade. The plants are not found along roadsides or in open fields. They can often be found along trout streams. The mottled leaves of the Trout Lily even look like the mottled colored backs of the trout. Some anglers know that when Trout Lilies bloom, trout are in the local rivers and streams. This pairing is called phenology.
Flower Habits: The flowers remain closed at night and on cloudy overcast days. The flowers open fully on sunny days. The flowers point downward. The pollinators that have the ability hover in front of the flowers or hang from various flower parts will collect nectar or pollen. The nectar seems to be very popular harvest with pollinators. Many pollinators do collect the pollen, too.
Plants do not flower until the plant is four to seven years old. The above ground plant parts last about two months before dying and disappearing. The plant enters dormancy once the leaves begin to die.
The leaves have parallel veins.
Range: Trout Lilies are found most commonly toward the eastern areas of North America. The plants can be found from Nova Scotia to western Ontario to Minnesota, south to Florida and Alabama. The are many similar species in the western areas of North America.
Colors: All eastern species are yellow or white. All eastern species of Trout Lilies have only one flower on a stalk. The leaves are either plain or mottled with white or deep red-brown spots.
Western species have pale pink to deep pink-purple flowers. The western species typically have multiple flowers on one stalk. The leaves are plain or have streaks or veining.
Plant Math: The flowers have floral parts in threes or multiples of threes. In the photos above, the tepals number six. The seedlings have one single seed leaf (cotyledon). The leaf veins run parallel to each other.
In the Garden: Digging up these plants from the woods is a bad idea. The plants don’t flower until they are four to seven years old and then only if conditions are favorable. Trout Lilies are available at native plant sales and nurseries.
Plant Trout Lilies in conditions that mimic their natural growing conditions. This means moist areas beneath small trees with very light shade.
White-tailed Deer do not particularly like this plant for eating. The deer will nibble at the young emerging leaves but usually do not eat the entire leaf.
Other common names Yellow Trout Lily, Yellow Dogtooth Violet
Watch for insect and plant partnerships. Who pollinates the plant? See if you can identify or at least describe the insects that pollinate the plants.
Records bloom dates and phenology of what is blooming or happening at the same time.
Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast by Carol Gracie is a great book. It is quite pricey now. But I provide the Amazon.com link for you just in case you can use it.