Trout Lily in Deering

Trout lily, an early spring native wildflower, is rare in Deering.

I started documenting the wildflowers and flowering shrubs native to Deering when I first moved here in 2011. In 2023 my list includes about 300 species, most of which are plants typical of the northeast. One component of the northeastern flora that is mostly missing or, at best, poorly represented, are the earliest spring flowers. Skunk cabbage, which is exothermic and can melt its way through snow, seems to be missing. I have not seen any anemones or hepaticas either. Marsh marigold is represented by a single plant in a brook next to the Carew house, although I have not seen it for the past two years. I had not seen our earliest lily until wo years ago when trout lily appeared here at my home on Hedgehog Mountain. I don’t know where this trout lily came from, but it has come up reliably for what is now the third year. With that persistence, I am happy list trout lily as occurring naturally in Deering: I welcome it as one of few early iconic early spring flowers to flower in our town.

Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum, a member of the lily family, is found in moist places in deciduous forests. It is a small plant, 8 inches or less in height, characterized by its mottled leaves and a unique, yellow lily-like flower perched at the tip of a delicate stalk. Trout lily is one of the earliest of our native wildflowers and is certainly the first of our lilies, blooming at the same time and habitats as bloodroot, spring beauty, marsh mallow and others. The species has many other common names, but the best known of them is dog tooth violet. ‘Trout’ lily refers to the purple-brownish mottled leaves that suggest the fish, and also the plant flowers at the opening of trout season in New Hampshire. This mottling lead to the appellation ‘adder’s tongue,’ because of a perceived similarity of the leaves to snake skin. An early botanist objected to such a name for so pretty a flower and he proposed ‘fawn lily,’ supposing the mottling was more favorably compared to a young fawn. The very old name ‘dog-tooth violet’ comes from an Eurasian variety that has violet flowers and toothlike roots.

Trout lily is a North American native plant, distributed throughout the eastern states and provinces of the USA and Canada. It is closely related to Canada may flower, Mianthemum canadense, which is common in our area but blooms later and in the same places, in May and June, and tulip. The genus Erythronium includes about thirty-two species, most of which are native to the Central and Western states and provinces. A few species are found in Asia and Europe, respectively. Pink and white varieties occur in other states. Trout lily is the only eastern species, and I have only seen this pretty species at one location in Deering, here on Hedgehog Mountain.

Trout lily can reproduce sexually and produce seed. Pollinators include long-tongued insects, which can reach the nectaries that are located deep within the flower. The chief pollinators are blow-flies, mining bees and queen bumble bees. More commonly, trout Lily reproduces asexually by budding of perennial corms, and colonies 100 years old are known. Crickets and carabid beetles disperse the seed. White tailed deer sometimes nip off the buds and bears dig up the corms.

Young plants only produce one leaf. The don’t produce two leaves, and are then capable of flowering, until the bulb reaches sufficient size and has worked its way deeply into the soil (as much as 8 – 10 “). The leaves appear to be growing at ground level, but actually they emerge from a subterranean stem that lies several inches above the bulb. The plants do not flower until they are four to seven years old.

The roots of trout lily scavenge phosphorous from the spring run-off. The phosphorous is translocated to the leaves and is then returned to the soil when the leaves die back. Thus, trout lily performs an important environmental service. The ability of trout lily to accumulate phosphorous is thanks to mycorrhizal fungi. Once established, the roots of some plants are colonized by mycorrhizal fungi. The fungi sustain themselves through the winter with carbohydrates produced by the plant’s bulbs. This inhibits growth of the plants during the first season, but with the arrival of spring, fungi in roots of the infected plants enable them to absorb nutrients. This results in growth rates double that of ‘uninfected’ plants.

The young leaves and corms may be boiled and eaten, but in some people the concoction is emetic. Lore has it that a tea made from the leaves joins umpteen other teas as a cure for hiccups. Plants are also known to produce an antibiotic that is effective against gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria.

3 thoughts on “Trout Lily in Deering”

  1. Where I was in Ohio we had both the yellow and white trout lilies in abundance, like the canada lilies here. Would you by any chance be willing to share your list of Deering wildflowers/shrubs? Vicki Motz


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