How We Protect Trillium

by Susan Leopold, PhD

Catesby’s trillium, Mark Catesby (1682-1749)
Catesby’s trillium, Mark Catesby (1682-1749)

The adoption of trillium (Trillium spp.) by Mountain Rose Herbs is wonderfully symbolic of the power of the triad found in the leaves, petals, and sepals of the wildflower loved by so many. On a personal level the trillium links the conservation passion of yet another three entities that have deeply touched my life and so many other plant lovers: Mountain Rose Herbs, United Plant Savers, and Rosemary Gladstar. Rosemary founded Mountain Rose Herbs to supply the California Herb School and is also the inspirational force behind United Plant Savers. As a guiding light of herbalism, she reminds us all to think of how we can return the favor to help the plants that endlessly help us.

Medicinal Use

Trillium, most commonly known as bethroot, has been used historically for helping bring on contractions to aid in birth and as a uterine tonic to help stop bleeding. Trillium erectum is the species that is historically referred to for medicinal use. It has a dark red flower and a unique smell that attracts carrion flies as its pollinator. There is also its rich folklore as a love potion, which makes sense for the passion it elicits in plant lovers. Wake-robin and whip-poor-will flower are also wonderful common names that came about because the trillium bloom with the return of the birds and the peak time for the sound of the whip-poor-will call into the dusk. Trilliums are an essential and iconic spring ephemeral.

Conservation Insight and Overview

When I first moved to my farm 17 years ago, I researched what endangered plants were near me since I was at the time interning at the Virginia Department of Natural Heritage. I learned that there was a documented population of Trillium cernuum, listed as Imperiled in the state of Virginia, and I was eager to find it and protect it. (Imperiled = At high risk of extirpation from the state due to very restricted range, very few populations, often 20 or fewer, steep declines, or other factors.)

Later I discovered that Trillium cernuum was the first trillium specimen sent to Europe, and in 1753 Linnaeus named the genus Trillium (trilix, Latin for three). Linnaeus would also name T. erectum and T. sessile. Various botanists would name the remainder of the genus, but certainly T. catesbaei would be attributed to my favorite plant explorer and botanical artist, Mark Catesby. We take for granted these early plant explorers that documented medicinal plant uses and natural history knowledge through their connections with native people. It is this knowledge that would inform the eclectic herbalism movement based on the rich native medicinal species found so abundantly during the 1700s and into the 1800s. The flora of the Appalachian region was noted back then and confirmed today as a biodiversity hot spot (the most diverse temperate region found on the planet) and uniquely rich in a plethora of medicinal plants. Trillium represents that diversity once you dig into how its genus is expressed in its various forms; thus you gain a deeper understanding of what trilliums can teach us about endemic populations and awareness for critical conservation.

Alan Weakly, Director of the UNC Herbarium prepared a lecture for the Mt. Cuba Symposium entitled “Ecology and Biogeography of Trillium in Eastern North America: Where are the Trillium and Why are they there?” It provides an excellent overview and is available online.

Noted from Weakly’s research is that the Eastern U.S. is the mecca in regards to Trillium diversity with endemic regional species representing relictual populations; this refers to populations that presently occur in a restricted area but whose original range was far wider during a previous period. With that in mind there are currently 65 taxa globally recognized; 53 are in North America (42 in the east and 11 in the West), and 12 are found in Asia. It is clearly remarkable the diversity found in the southern Appalachian region with Georgia being the most blessed state with 22 species of trillium.

As the south has an abundant diversity of these small endemic populations, the northeastern region has fewer population but with much larger distribution, such as the T. grandiflorum. This species I know well because just a few miles from my farm is the G.R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area. This is the largest and densest population found in the United States. It is the premier wildflower destination for native plant enthusiasts who travel to see the spring display that has been estimated to have 18 million individual trilliums within two square miles along the famed trillium trail that is adopted by the Virginia Native Plant Society. Near to the preserve there is constant development taking place, and I have organized several plant rescues of trillium, cohosh (Actaea spp.), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), yellow lady’s slipper (Cyprepedium parviflorum), wild ginger (Asarum canadensis), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), and other natives that I have then brought back to my farm and planted. Each time I see the orange marking tape I am deeply saddened that there is little to no process for ecological assessments when developments are considered and that the value of these sensitive disappearing native plants is often overlooked. This is compounded by the fact that states have few resources to fund botanical fieldwork to even accurately document or monitor plant species. Each state has a Department of Natural Heritage, which then collectively shares data with Nature Serve, a national database for biodiversity and endangered species. You can search the Nature Serve website by species to see its conservation status at the state and global level.

Deep Disconnect Between the Medicinal Plant Trade and Native Plant Nursery Trade

I see a deep disconnect on so many levels when it comes to plant conservation of native medicinal plants from Appalachia, and trillium particularly. I have painstakingly dug trillium’s small rhizomes/bulbs. It takes time and care as they are very small (the size often of a gumball), and that bulb could easily be older than I am at 42. In Appalachia root buyers pay .60 cents a pound for fresh root and 4.00 dollars a pound for dry bulbs cut down the middle (noted advertised spring 2016 prices). Who would dig these precious bulbs for so little? It must take around 50-75 bulbs to make a pound. Can you imagine what a wild population being dug to make up say even 10 pounds looks like? That would be nearly 500 wild trillium, and this is being sold for $40.00.

Then you have those in the native plant community that propagate these plants via seeds/divisions and sell trillium for around 5 dollars for an individual plant. This is the paradox that plants harvested from the wild for the medicinal plant markets have little to no value, but yet in the native plant nursery trade for the home gardener they do. These two cultural contexts operate in two completely different paradigms within the same region. I further want to make the point that it is in the southern Appalachia region where these trillium are still dug for the medicinal plant trade, and this is also where there is the southern sessile (without stem) species, especially those of limited distribution, that are the most vulnerable. Our duty is to ensure the perpetuation of these plants in the wild by minimizing collection from the wild. Commercial production via seed is making propagated plants available, and tissue culture is just around the corner, but the price points will never compete with wild collected plants sold at pennies on the dollar. Though historically it is T. erectum most notable for medicinal value, it seems trilliums are dug indiscriminately in the wild trade from the region with the most vulnerable species.

Though the wild harvesting is an issue, it is drastically compounded by the loss of habitat to development and resource extraction that is devouring our native plants, and in the case of trillium, the over-population of deer also deeply impacts the plant’s populations. The threats are coming from all angles, and I would like to highlight those efforts towards conservation and research.

Trillium Conservation and Gardens

The Huntsville Botanical Garden has 28 Eastern US Species and over 200 selected forms and cultivars displayed throughout the garden. Its collection is officially recognized by the Plant Collections Network of the American Public Gardens Association.

Mount Cuba, located in Delaware is a public garden and research center for native plants. They have a trillium trail with a diverse collection and conduct research on propagation, seed dispersal and ecological relationships of native plant communities. A book is available online that covers the trillium collection and research.

Cottage Lake Gardens in Washington State is a repository of trillium diversity, as they have 48 species, nearly every species found in North America. This is the passion of one dynamic couple’s vision, Kevin and Susie Egan. You can visit the gardens or stay at their B&B that they operate. thegarden.aspx

How to Be a Plant Saver

What can we do? Trillium should not be used in the commercial medicinal plant trade and for this reason Mountain Rose Herb does not sell trillium and has partnered with United Plant Savers through our Adopt an “At-Risk” Plant Program. The financial support from Mountain Rose Herbs helps UpS continue our outreach and educational efforts. I also encourage you to become a member of United Plant Savers. We are a membership organization, and it is our membership fees that allow us to continue this work.

If you have land and want to grow trillium, learn about your regional diversity and buy from a reputable native plant nursery that sells propagated plants. United Plant Savers has a Botanical Sanctuary Network that anyone who is passionate about native medicinal plant conservation can join. You can go online to our interactive map to read about sanctuaries in your region. One such sanctuary is the Trillium Center in Ohio ( I have watched this sanctuary grow in its mission over the years. I love their logo as it shows the ant dispersing the trilliums seeds, noted for the seeds that have an alisome (a small fatty food that the ants love to eat). To stop and think about a fly or a bee pollinating the flower and a single ant carrying a trillium seed just a few feet and that seed germinating over the next two years, and then seven years before it flowers, eventually creating a trillium population over the next 100 years, and that population having its own variation perhaps taking a 1000 or so years, leading to a region where you can now find over 40 different species going back in time to 11,000 years ago when parts of the region were covered in advancing glaciers and species were forced into refuge, that has left us these pockets of unique diversity.

Meditating on the thousands of years of ecological interactions that create the composition of native plant communities places our role in this moment in time as vitally important. Right now we are holding the future of these fragile plants in our hands and, as Rosemary reminds us, they are asking for our help; they are asking for us to give back; and we need to be a collective voice for the love potion. So aptly named bethroot, its medicine for me is now a deep metaphor for birthing a movement of plant conservation. As herbalists we need to be healing the earth as we heal ourselves.

ANALOGUES: Wonderful alternatives to trillium as an astringent for the female reproductive system are raspberry leaf and motherwort.