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How to grow Trout Lilies in the garden

Trout lily blooming in spring.
Trout lily blooming in spring.
Kim Willis

The beautiful Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum, is found in dappled sunlight in moist Michigan woodlands and throughout the north eastern states in the early spring. (The USDA plant database does not list them as growing in Michigan, although the photo used here is from a wild stand found not far from the authors home.) Trout lilies are close relatives of the Dogtooth Violet, which is very similar except the Trout Lily has a yellow flower and the Dogtooth Violet flower is white.

The Trout lily is named for its leaves. Some fanciful person thought the leaves looked like the coloring of a trout. The blade-shaped leaves are silvery green on top, with mottling of purple and brown. Leaves may be held pointed upwards or spread out along the ground. The Trout Lily plant consists of only a few leaves, usually just two, which can persist through much of the summer in the forest undergrowth. Plants grow to about a foot high in good locations.

Trout Lilies have a single tiny 3/4- 1 inch nodding yellow flower on a leafless stalk rising a few inches above the leaves in early spring. The flowers are like tiny tiger lily flowers, with the petals-tepals swept backward and the flower facing downward. The backside of the petals is reddish. Some flowers are speckled with orange or brown near the center. The flowers close at night and are pollinated by ants.

Garden with Trout Lilies

Trout lilies make good plants for shaded or woodland gardens. You can find sources to purchase Trout lilies and they should always be purchased rather than collected from the wild. Trout lilies arise from a small corm, a bulb-like structure. New corms grow from seeds or as off shoots from older corms. It can take 6-7 years for a corm to mature enough to produce a flower shoot when grown from seed, slightly less time to blooming from small corms. When you are purchasing Trout lily corms try to buy from companies that list the age of the corm. Pink and lavender flowered non- native species of Erythronium are often listed for sale more frequently than the native species. The corms should be planted as soon as you receive them, as they deteriorate rapidly. Here are some sources for Trout lilies; ( cultivated species) (cultivated species) ( native stock) ( native stock)

Plant Trout lilies in a shaded location, preferably under the shade of deciduous trees where they will get some sunlight as they emerge in the spring. They like a rich, organic soil so add compost before planting. Plant the corms 4-5 inches deep. Keep them moist, especially in spring. Leaves may disappear in the heat of the summer, so mark the location so you won’t overplant on top of them. Mulching with shredded leaves is an excellent soil conditioner for Trout lilies. Trout lilies in a good location will form a slow spreading groundcover. Large clumps can be gently divided a few weeks after blooming with divisions immediately replanted.

Trout lily seeds can be collected about 6 weeks after the flower has faded. The pod is oval shaped and light green to tan. The pod should be starting to split when collected for seed. You must plant the seeds immediately in a moist, humus rich potting mix as they do not store well. They will not germinate until next spring as they need a period of cold stratification. The seedlings look almost grass like when they appear and will take several years to bloom.

Trout lilies are listed as both edible and medicinal. Both leaves and corms are said to be edible although no one should be harvesting them for food, as they are becoming scarce. Besides the medicinal qualities attributed to the Trout lily are said to be emetic- which means they make you throw up. So there are two good reasons not to eat them.

Trout lilies, like many woodland wildflowers, suffer greatly from deer browsing in our deer devastated Michigan woodlands. Obviously deer don’t get sick from eating them. They are more likely now to be found on wooded roadside ditches where deer don’t stop to graze. Trout lilies are a protected plant and should not be picked or removed from their natural homes if you do come across them.

If they are left alone Trout lilies are long lived and colonies can be as old as the deciduous trees sheltering them. The flower show is short-lived however and requires a walk in the woods or garden in the very early spring to enjoy it. Good companions in the home garden are cyclamen, hellebores, trillium, bloodroot, toad lilies, pulmonaria, violets and violas.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read

How to make a woodland garden

Great native shrubs for the landscape

Growing Brugmansia and datura

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