GV’s Joyce Newman introduces us to a wildflower usually found on the forest floor.
Hiking along the edge of the woodlands a few days ago, I came across a group of short, nodding yellow flowers reaching up through the leaf litter on the ground towards the sunshine. At the base of each plant were its telltale leaves—speckled, elongated shapes, looking just like brown trout.
The spring trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is one of several native perennial wildflowers that appear in sunny patches on or near the forest floor. They come up quickly in the early spring, then flower, produce fruit, and create new leaves, all before the tall deciduous trees leaf out, blocking most of the sunlight. In the heat of summer the flowers and foliage disappear, which is why they are called ephemerals.
Some other examples of native ephemerals are blood root (Sanguinaria canadensis), liver’s leaf or hepatica (Hepatica nobilis), and Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). But the trout lily is by far my favorite for there are so many stories about it.
It’s sometimes called the dog’s-tooth violet, although it doesn’t look at all like a violet. The reason is that its corm, the tiny bulb at the base of the root, resembles a tiny, white dog’s tooth. According to the experts, the small bulb is actually edible if you take off its fibrous covering. It supposedly tastes like cucumber.You can add this plant to a salad or eat the bulbs as a trail snack. You can also make a tea with the flower, leaves, or corm (or all of them). However, you definitely should not eat a lot of these bulbs at once, as trout lilies can be an emetic (causing vomiting).
The plant’s root also was widely considered to be an aphrodisiac going back as far as the 17th century. Bulb expert Anna Pavord describes how Europeans were so excited to obtain specimens of the trout lily from America where it flourished, and she quotes the famous English herbalist and gardener John Parkinson, author of Paradisus (1629), who wrote: “Wee have had from Virginia a roote sent unto us, which the naturall people holde not onely to be singular to procure lust, but hold it as a secret, loth to reveale it.”
The trout lily grows in quite large groupings in many regions all across the U.S. Its flowers look like miniature lilies, rising up about 8-10 inches from the base of leaves. There are white and pink varieties as well as the more common yellow blooms. Its petals and sepals curve backwards showing six brown stamens that stick out like reptilian tongues.
These stamens give rise to yet another common name for the trout lily called adder’s-tongue, about which the famous American poet Emily Dickinson wrote in her letters: “…. in our rambles we found many beautiful children of spring, which I will mention and see if you have found them…. adder’s- tongue, … liver-leaf, blood-root, and many other smaller flowers.”
Like some other ephemeral wildflowers, the trout lily has a fascinating symbiotic relationship with ants—a partnership known as myrmecochory. This term means that the plant’s ripe seeds are dispersed and actually planted underground by ants. The ants are attracted to a tasty coating on the seeds and so they take the seeds away for eating and spread them in the process.
To cultivate your own trout lilies, you need a partly shady woodland area with soil on the acid side—ideally a location that’s damp in spring, but doesn’t totally dry out in summer either. The plantings do well under trees and shrubs. Pavord recommends that you plant the bulbs in the fall with the pointed end of the bulb facing upward, about 4 inches deep and 4 inches apart. You can pair them with hostas, ferns or other shade-loving plants.
Joyce H. Newman, a Garden Variety contributing writer, covers gardening topics, food matters and environmental issues. The former editor of Consumer Reports GreenerChoices.org, which evaluates environmental claims on green product labels, she holds a certificate in horticulture from the New York Botanical Garden.