Trout Lilies

By Andrea McDowell, originally published May 19, 2011|

Story Intro: Elusive spring flower has short lifespan

Normally – or normally in our era of climate change and ever-advancing springs – the first of the trout lilies begins blooming around April 15. Last year according to the date stamps on my photographs, I’d first seen one blooming on April 12. They might have been out at the same time this year, but if they were, I couldn’t see them under all the stubborn snow.

So this year I didn’t see my first trout lilies until the end of April. It felt like an eternity.
Trout lilies fall under the umbrella of “spring ephemerals,” flowers that appear for a short time just as winter is ending and disappear shortly afterwards. They live – for flowers – a comparatively tough life, and I’ve sometimes found myself wondering if they envy the weeds their easy transience.

Trout lilies are pollinated by ants, and ants bring the resulting seeds with their nutrient-rich coating back to their colonies as food for their young. Afterwards, the seed itself is discarded in a secluded place and grows safely.

A distinct seasonal pattern is required for trout lily seeds to germinate: first a warm summer, then a cool fall and winter, before the seeds can germinate early the following spring. But having germinated, the plant will not send a leaf above the soil for at least another two years, spending that time instead growing a root. A second leaf appears around year five. They bloom for the first time when they are about seven years old.
Once the plant is well established, it can also reproduce clonally, by sending out shoots underground–leading to large colonies of trout lilies.

If you see a large patch of trout lilies in a forest, chances are good that it’s been there for a very long time. Their leaves are distinctive, mottled green-and-brown spears that appear poking through soil and leaf litter as early as March, in a warm year. They heavily favour south-facing slopes near water, especially near the roots of large, old trees, and will sprout and blossom there faster than other locations. They also heavily favour undisturbed woodlands; so you won’t find them in old woods without leaf litter or with large numbers of weeds, which means you won’t find them in High Park, for instance. But you can find them in less tamed and less busy green areas in Toronto; for example, wilder stretches of the Don or the Rouge rivers. Most of the trout lily photos on this page were taken in the East Don Parkland, particularly along Newtonbrook Creek.

Trout lilies appear after bloodroot and before trilliums, so get to the woods before the end of May if you want to see them. Otherwise, it’s a long hard wait through another Canadian winter before they come out again: as the trees leaf out, the sun slowly wanes for the spring ephemerals underneath and without light, they wither.

Trout lilies grow commonly in forested areas throughout Southern Ontario, however, as human settlements either eliminate or disturb their habitat, their numbers continue to decline. And please leave them in their homes to grow: the length of their life cycle and the fragility of the plants means that a trout lily picked in the forest today won’t be replaced for another seven years, while the bloom placed in a glass of water on your table will quickly wither and die. In a few weeks the trout lilies will have gone to seed; if you are ambitious and very, very patient, you can try collecting the seeds to bring home and grow in a shady, warm part of your garden.

Andrea McDowell coordinates environmental approvals and studies for wind energy projects by day and writes about environmental issues by night. This leaves twilight for hiking all over Southern Ontario’s conservation areas, parks and trails, taking photographs and cataloguing whatever she finds there at her blog Zoopolis (http://blog1.andreamcdowell.com). She has contributed to This Magazine, Spacing, Corporate Knights, Brain, Child and Rabble.ca. Send your questions or comments about
natural heritage for possible use here to: andrea@andreamcdowell.com.

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