Snow Trillium is one of the earliest blooming flowers in the Garden, sometimes, as the name implies, prior to full snow melt.
The stem is an above ground portion (a flowering scape) of the underground rhizome. It rises rarely more than 4 inches high.
Leaves: In the true trilliums the leaf like parts are actually floral bracts just below the flower base. They are of course much larger than the normal small bract that you see on most plants, but they are equipped to fulfill the function of a leaf. The bracts of Snow Trillium have rounded obtuse tips with the blades of a bluish-green color. These have a distinct stalk, are three in number like all trilliums and form a whorl atop the scape.
Flower: The three part flower is up to one inch wide with white elliptical petals that are entire to wavy on the margins, with the tips obtuse, not pointed, and they spread outward at the tips initially and fully spread outward toward maturity. The petals form a tube shape at their bases. They are longer than the sepals, which are lanceolate in shape with a more pointed tip. Like the bracts they too are bluish-green and frequently with purplish undertones. As the flower matures, the greenish-purplish sepals reflex back from the petals and stand out clearly between the white petals. There are six stamens with white filaments. Anthers are slender, straight and pale yellow in color. The ovary is composed of 3 united carpels, 6-angled but appearing as 3-angled as 3 ridges are more prominent. The style is short with three stigmas that have spreading recurved or coiling tips. The flower is solitary on a tall stalk (pedicel) above the whorl of 3 bracts. The flower stem slightly droops and the total height of the plant rarely exceeds 6 inches. After pollination, the flower stalk droops beneath the bracts.
Fruit: The flower matures to a greenish-white 3-angled capsule containing the seeds. The capsule is pulpy but not juicy and without aroma. Trilliums are tedious to start from seed as they must have a cold moist period, followed by a warm moist period, followed by another cold moist period, each period of at least 60 to 90 days. Planted in soil, they will thus germinate in the 2nd Spring. Then they will take 3 to 5 years before they flower.
Habitat: The plant grows from rhizomes and will spread into a nice clump overtime if left undisturbed. Like most Trilliums it will grow best in well drained soil in light full shade or dappled sun under the tree canopy. The plant dies back to dormancy by late spring as soon as seed is set. It grows best if not in competition with other plants or leaf remains.
Names: The genus name Trillium, is derived from the Latin trilix, meaning 'triple' and referring to the flowers having parts of three. The species name, nivale, means 'of the snow'. The author name for the plant classification - ‘Riddell’, is for John Leonard Riddell, (1807-1865), American chemistry professor, botanist, writer, and medical doctor. He was born in Massachusetts, but most of his botanical observations were in the central states from Ohio southward. His important work was a “Synopsis of the Flora of the Western States” (1835) defined at the time as the territory from the Allegheny mountains to the Platte River in Missouri Territory. It was in great part a compilation but it contained the description of this species. He later published Catalogus Florae Ludovicianae. He served as Adjunct Professor of Chemistry and Lecturer on Botany in the Cincinnati Medical College where he also received his M.D. and he later became chair of the Chemistry Dept. in the Medical College of Louisiana (which then became the University of Louisiana), which position he held until his death. It was there he invented the binocular microscope. The plant genus Riddellia was named for him.
New Family: There is a movement among botanists to segregate the Trilliums and a few other genera out of the Liliaceae Family and into the Melanthiaceae. The U of M Herbarium has made this change on their Minnesota checklist but Flora of North America has not yet published this.
Comparisons: This trillium should not be confusing due to its small size, but compare to the larger (also white) Large-flowered Trillium, T. grandiflorum.
Above: 1st photo - The glossy leaves below the flower belong to Common Periwinkle (Running Myrtle) (Vinca minor), among which grows this Snow Trillium, protected from drying temperatures by the green ground cover of the Myrtle. 2nd photo - A group of plants showing the reflexed greenish-purplish sepals of mature flowers.
Below: 1st photo - The three leaf-like structures on the above ground stem of Trilliums are called bracts and are not true leaves. 2nd photo - The 3 greenish-purplish sepals are shorter than the petals, narrow, and reflex from the petals. 3rd photo - Anthers are slender, straight and pale yellow in color. The stigmas have spreading tips.
Below - Two historical photos. 1st photo - A clump of blooming Snow Trillium on April 19, 1952. 2nd photo - A rare 4-petal Snow Trillium on April 22, 1957. Both photos from Kodachromes taken in the Garden by Martha Crone.
Notes: Eloise Butler's records show that she first planted this species, with plants obtained from Kelsey's Nurseries in North Carolina, on May 9, 1910 and again on Oct. 6, 1913 with plants from Gillett's in MA. More from Gillett's in 1918 and 1920. Additional plantings occurred in 1923, on May 16, 1924 from Denison, Iowa and on April 22, 1928 from Decorah, Iowa. The second Garden Curator, Martha Crone, reported that in 1935 the Snow Trillium bloomed for one month. She planted extensively: 40 additional plants in 1934, 325 on May 6, 1939 that she obtained in Mankato MN, some in 1942 and '44, and 65 additional plants in 1945 and more every year thereafter through 1956 except for 1951.
Rarity: Snow Trillium is native to Minnesota in the SE parts but under environmental pressure as it is listed on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources "Special Concern" list. Per the DNR "A species is considered a species of special concern if, although the species is not endangered or threatened, it is extremely uncommon in Minnesota, or has unique or highly specific habitat requirements and deserves careful monitoring of its status." In Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky and Maryland the plant is on the "Threatened" list, a more critical rating than "Special Concern." Its range in North America is very restricted - On the western edge from Minnesota to Missouri, touching on the eastern borders of South Dakota and Nebraska, and east to Pennsylvania (where it is now considered "rare") and south to Kentucky and Virginia.
Bloom dates: Both Gardeners Ken Avery and Cary George kept records of these early bloomers. Ken’s list noted that his earliest date was March 27, 1973 and the latest April 22, 1965. In Cary’s time it bloomed one day earlier on March 26, 1987, but the record still goes back to Martha Crone’s day when she noted it in bloom on March 22, 1945. Eloise Butler’s earliest date noted in her log was March 30, 1919.
Lore: Like many of the Trillium species, T. nivale has medicinal qualities. Roots contain volatile and fixed oils, tannic acid, saponin (a glucoside), and acrid crystalline, starch and other constituents. The dried root and rhizome can be boiled in milk for a useful drink for diarrhea and dysentery. Dried powdered root is used to make a fluid extract.
Eloise Butler wrote: "Trilliums are closely related to the lilies. All have a thick underground stem, bearing a single aerial stem, which supports a whorl of three large leaves varying somewhat in size and shape in different species. Above the leaf whorl arises the lovely flower, with or without a stalk; erect or drooping; white, red, purple or pink striped, according to the species. The flower is also on the plan of three green sepals, three colored petals, six stamens in two rows and one pistil made up of three united carpels. The name trillium probably comes from the three leaves. The plant has a number of local names - wake robin, bath flower and “way down east.” "Published May 21, 1911, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. Read article.
Former Garden Curator Martha Crone wrote: "After a long northern winter, what a welcome sight to find the brave little Snow Trilliums pushing thru the heavy blanket of leaves. They seem to defy the chilly nights and frosty weather." Published in The Fringed Gentian™ April 1958, Vol. 6 #2. Martha earlier reported on April 15th 1935: "The day was bitter cold, 16 degrees, and now there was 3/4 inch of ice on the pond. The snow trilliums didn’t mind and were still in bloom". In April 1959 - "With the Spring's first sunbeam, it blooms briefly, ripens it's seeds and disappears for the rest of the season."
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"