This spring beauty has some very peculiear adaptations and some really lovely common names. Pointy-headed taxonomists call common names “trivial names.” Some don’t strike me as trivial in the least. These names are often informative. TheTrillium erectum you see above is sometimes called “stinking benjamin.” In this case it refers to the fact that stinking benjamin, well, stinks. This is how it attracts flies to do its naughty business.
Once the flies, you know, ahem. Trillium make a little red fruit. These fruits contain seeds which have an elaisome on them — that’s an oil bearing structure. Ants have a tough time getting oil (what with gas prices the way they are) so collect the seeds and bring them home to eat the oil. Once they’re done they stick the seed in their trash pile. Come spring it germinates. That’s this plants strategy for spreading. The ants not only spread the seeds, they plant them.
Another trivial, or vulgar, name for Trillium erectum is “wake-robin.” I expect this is because they are spring ephemerals poking up before the trees have leafed out — roughly at the time robins show up. They take advantage of the little sun, do their business and are long gone by the time summer arrives.
These days robins hang around all year because the resort they used to fly to has been over-run by people from New Jersey, so “wake-robin” doesn’t make sense and probably makes you think of Batman.
I spotted these on my way to work the other morning. The path led through a particular dark part of Amherst, soI was keeping an eye out for badguys when I spotted these.
I’ve always loved the fact that everything on the plant comes in threes (easy to remember name) petals, sepals and what I thought were leaves. It turns out they’re not leaves, they’re bracts. The entire above ground structure is a scape, as on garlic. That’s a flowering stalk. The leaves, with petioles and everything have been reduced to little papery wispy things underground. That’s sort of a morphological fine point, but still cool nonetheless.
Finally, don’t eat the leaves becuase they contain calcium oxalate. That’s the same stuff in rhubarb leaves and can cause burning in your mouth, breathing difficulties and death. But only in high doses. You’d have to do some serious trillium grazing.
This brings me to the last thing I want to touch on. Trillium, like many plants, has been ascribed some medicinal powers. According to the folks at http://www.altnature.com/gallery/Trilliums.htm trillium can cure everything from ulcers to swollen eyes. It also both helps in child birth and induces menstruation. Presumably you’re not supposed to eat the leaves. A few of these powers led to the final trivial name I’ll leave you with: birth root, which is often corrupted beth root.
In sum: smells like rotting meat, ants enslaved to plant it, makes you give birth. Sounds dangerous.