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The triple trillium April 23, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, memoir, nature.
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This is an edited version of a piece I wrote for the Gloucester (Mass.) Daily Times.

trillium-stamineumTrilliums are my favorite spring wildflower.  I like them because they are mathematical: everything is in threes.  My wildflower book says, “Three large green leaves, three petals, six stamens, and a three-parted pistil.”  In short, a celebration of the number three.

The petals and the leaves are arranged in such a way that the points of each layer of three alternate with each other.  If you looked at it from the top and drew a line around its outer rim, you would have a six-pointed star whose points alternated: petal, leaf, petal, leaf, petal, leaf.

The number three is the number of the fairy tale, as I mentioned in my last post.  It is three suitors who come calling, three dragons that must be vanquished, three wishes that must be wished.  The number three is the magic number.

New England has only two kinds of trilliums as far as I know, the painted and the nodding.  Both of them are lovely.  trillium-vaseyiThe nodding trillium has large leaves of bright green and petals of a deep brownish red.  The flowering part is attached to the leaves by a drooping green stem so that the petals face down to the ground, as if the plant is shy.  You have to lift the flower gently in the crook of a finger to peer into its face—the one at right has had its face lifted up.

Photo by Louis Landry

Photo by Louis Landry

The painted trillium has small leaves of dark green topped with white petals striped with delicate red lines.  The red lines are thicker toward the center of the flower, making a red triangular shape around the base of the petals.  Triangular? Yes, of course, something to do with the number three.

I haven’t found them on Cape Ann.  It’s not a trillium kind of place—too windy, soil quality too poor.  (I have successfully planted a few in protected corners of my yard.)  I’ve seen them in the Holyoke Range, the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, the Catskills, and of course the Smokies, that botanist’s paradise.  I understand at least 10 varieties are found there.  Tucked away in the nooks and crannies of those mountains lives the yellow trillium with its speckled leaves and delicate lemon scent, trillium-luteumas well as the large-flowered trillium with its enormous snowy white blossom.  But then, it is impossible to rival the Smokies for wildflowers.  I am speaking of a place that has 31 kinds of violets and the lady slipper in both its pink and its yellow varieties.

trillium-grandiflorumIt was Carl Linnaeus who invented the word “trillium” in 1753.  Many Latin names sound formal or stuffy, but the name “trillium” must be one of his most successful coinages.  It is cheerful and jubilant, with its overtones of “trill” or “thrill.”

One time Bob and I took a walk in early May on Mt. Ascutney in central Vermont.  It was a foggy day, so we decided to concentrate on flowers instead of views.  We saw a trillium right next to the car at the bottom of the mountain, but it wasn’t blooming.  Must be too early for them, we thought.

But then, as we climbed, we got into the trilliums.  Between 1500′ and 2000′, as we wended our way through a dark hardwood forest, we saw many of them, all of the nodding variety.  Poking their way up through deep layers of leaves, hiding next to tree stumps, leaning over mossy streambanks, they flourished on that part of the mountain.  Trilliums and trilliums!  We were surrounded!

But it was on the way down that I discovered the master trillium—the “alpha trillium,” you might say if you’d been watching too many of those ponderous nature documentaries.  It was a triple blossom with three stems all growing from one point.  I had to check to make sure it was one plant and not three separate ones growing close together.  Sure enough, it was a triple trillium.  Three times three!  It stood there among its many companions that were thriving all across the foggy mountainside, shining in its mathematical magnificence.