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Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden

  • Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden
  • Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden
  • Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden
  • Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden
  • Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden
  • Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden
  • Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden

Trilliums is a fascinating group of woodland plants and in my garden I have a healthy 10 year old, big clump of Trillium cuneatum under my tall cedar tree. They emerge every early spring and are usually gone before September, and down at the bottom of my garden where I have my woodland area the trilliums are treasured for their unusual appearance.

Trilliums can be divided into two groups, the American group called sessile group which has upright petals directly attached to the leaf base, and the pedunculate group, found both in North America and Asia, with have flower stems and often reflexed petals. The Latin ‘Trillium’ meaning ‘in 3’s’ is true for the numbers of leaves, petals, sepals and stigmas. They are spring flowering rhizomatous perennials, emerging in March or April, flowering, setting seed and dying down from July to October. They need lots of water and the longer you can keep them in leaf, the quicker they will multiply and improve the flowering the following year. Trilliums that doesn’t multiply well have often died down too quickly due to lack of water.

Trilliums are said to grow best in shade under a deciduous tree so it gets sun when it flowers in the spring and shade later on in the summer - and in soil that doesn’t dry out. I grow my Trillium cuneatum under a conifer, but that’s the only tree I have that was suitable and the branches on my cedar tree is cut more than 4 m up so the trilliums get light enough in the spring. Later in the summer there are plenty of plants to make shade for my trilliums. If you don’t have the perfect position for trilliums I am sure you can create it quite easily, they are not picky, except about the water, they will hang their heads every day and vanish before June is over if you don’t give them enough water. I give mine a whole bucket of water a couple of times a week until end of August, just slowly pouring it out on the ground where they grow – you can’t give them too much water.

I think I have to say something about picking trillium flowers. DON’T. Even if you get many after a while, don’t pick them. Each plant need to complete the whole cycle of leaves, flower, setting seed and dying down in order to store energy enough to emerge next year. If you pick a flower it won’t come back the next year, the rhizome will struggle on underground, trying its best to collect nutrition from the soil to produce leaves and flowers and it will take many years before you’ll see it again - if ever. I have read that you can pick flowers from very mature clumps of trilliums, that the rhizomes are better suited for picking, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have hundreds. I got one Trillium cuneatum in 2004, and my clump is a result of that single plant spreading since then. In 2005 I decided to add to my collection with a Trillium luteum. It was planted next to the cuneatum and came into flower but just days after that, someone visiting me, helping me in the garden managed to step on the tiny flower so it broke. He was very sorry and so was I, but none of us had any idea the trillium would not come back next spring. When it didn’t, I thought it was lost forever, until it emerged again last spring, in 2013, EIGHT years later! It looked just as lovely, that one single yellow trillium, but don’t you think a cat or a squirrel or maybe a fox managed to break off the flower just a week after it emerged - again?! So now I will have to probably wait another 7-8 years before I will see it again. And goodness how many years before it will spread and become a good size clump like the Trillium cuneatum. I have since also bought one Trillium grandiflorum, I hope to have better luck with it, will fence it in so nothing can break it :-)

Trilliums are very hardy and will take intense cold, they are unlikely to suffer from frost damage over most of Europe including all of the UK. They can suffer from mild aphid attacks, but I have never seen that in my garden, so apart from being trampled on, not much bother them. There are around 50 different species and some are easier to grow than other. For beginners, these are the best to start with:

Trillium cuneatum – red flowers – 30cm tall
Trillium erectum – red flowers – 30cm tall
Trillium grandiflorum - white flowers – 40cm tall
Trillium luteum – yellow flowers – 40cm tall
Trillium chloropetalum – dark red flowers – 45cm tall

I can warmly recommend this beautiful little ballerina for a shady spot in your garden, they are a bit pricey to buy but if you have patience, one single plant can become many over time. I have some Trillium cuneatum babies to swap with if you have something a bit special or unusual to swap back.

Comments (4)

  1. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    What a fascinating and fickle plant Helene. Do you think it sulks;-)

    I love the name 'Little ballerina'. It's one of those common names that sticks - once you've seen it as that, it can't be anything else. I looked it up on Google and couldn't find anyone else calling Trilliums 'Little ballerinas', but I did find a US ballet company called Trillium. So someone else has made the connection!

    Common names have to start somewhere. So, it's official, GreenPlantSwap has added the common name 'Little ballerina' to the Trillium cuneatum plant record.
    Do you think we should add it to other Trilliums too?

  2. Grower

    Helene U Taylor

    Wow, how fun, thanks!
    Trillium cuneatum is one of the smaller trilliums, not sure if all trilliums would fit the name so well, as some trilliums can be over 70cm tall. Apart from that, none of the other common names for trilliums appear on more than one trillium as far as I know, so best to keep it to the rules I think and have it on just this one :-)
    Common names for Trillium cuneatum:
    Little Sweet Betsy, Sweet Betsy, Toadshade Trillium, Whippoorwill Toadshade, Wood Lily.

    Here is a list I found for trillium common names, although the list of trilliums is far from complete and I know of a few more common names for some of them listed here: http://www.eaglerockfarms.com/CommonNames.htm

    And I am not sure if we can call trilliums sulkers, they just need the light and sunshine on their face in order to store nutrition for next year, if they don’t get that they won’t have the energy to emerge. And they are really slow growers, 8-9 years from seed to flowers. Now, that’s testing a gardeners’ patience if anything!

    I have so many photos of my Trillium cuneatum, here is one where two flowers look like they are having a dance – or a cuddle :-)

    • Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden
  3. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    I agree with you I think the Little ballerina name applies best to Trillium cuneatum, not just for their size but for their vivid purple which would well grace the stage of Covent Garden. So the name is theirs alone.

    I'll also take back what I said about sulking. Despite the ballet, I wouldn't want to suggest they were prima donnas. It's more a case, perhaps, of a long depression and lethargy caused by light deprivation ... which is perfectly understandable in such a high performance flower ;-)

  4. Grower

    Richard Ingham

    Trilliums are wonderful little pants although you have to be patient! I have had this Trillium luteum for four years and although it looks very healthy it still only has two flower stems! I think it will be some time before I have a clump big enough to offer as a swap.

    • Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden
    • Trillium cuneatum - little ballerinas in the garden

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