Trillium grandiflorum (White Trillium)

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Trillium grandiflorum - White Trillium (Liliaceae), also commonly known as Great White Trillium, Wakerobin, and Birthroot

Photo of White Trillium, Paul Drobot, University of Wisconsin:

Description: Plant: White trillium is a perennial plant, arising from a single rootstalk (rarely two) approximately 8”-16” tall (University of Wisconsin). This rootstalk grows from a short rhizome containing long roots (Hanzawa et. al. 1993). The plant has quite a long lifespan; the plant takes about 17 years to mature and can live over 70 years (Knight 2006). Flower: The flower contains three white petals, elliptical shaped with pointed tips. As the plant matures, the petals turn pink. The flower is solitary and grows from a 2”-3” stalk above the leaves (University of Texas). Fruit: The flower can produce a round, pale green berry approximately ½” wide. The berry is odorless and mealy inside (University of Wisconsin).

Medicinal Uses: This plant has a variety of medicinal uses and was often used in ancient medicine. The root is a diuretic and can also be grated and applied to eyes for the reduction of swelling as well as to rheumatic joints to ease pain. The root’s bark can be used in the form of eardrops in order to reduce soreness (during ear infections). Finally, the grated root can be simmered in water and drunk for treatment of cramps and irregular menses (Plants for a Future).

Edible Uses: The leaves can be cooked and eaten, similar to spinach.

Habitat and Range: Native to the United States, White trillium typically grows in the temperate understories of deciduous forests in Eastern North America (Hanzawa et. al. 1993). This geographical range includes growth of the plant from Maine to Ontario, and south throughout the Appalachian Mountains in Georgia and Arkansas (USDA). The plant is most successful in a combination of partial sunlight and shade. It prefers a dry to moderate air moisture and rich, loamy, sandy soil (University of Wisconsin).

Threats: Currently listed as an endangered plant in the state of Maine and a “exploitably vulnerable” plant in the state of New York (USDA). This is most likely from overconsumption of large, reproductive plants by White-Tailed Deer as well as the lengthy growth period. Thus it is illegal in many states and provinces to pick the White trillium.

Resource Acquisition: Similar to most plants, White trillium gains its energy through the process of photosynthesis and is photosynthetically active from April until leaf senescence (essentially deterioration of the leaves after development) occurs, typically in August (Rooney et. al. 2001). At this point, the plant absorbs nutrients through its root system and enters its "dormant" phase (Rooney et. al. 2001). However, during its flowering stage, the plant holds its leaves in an arching manner. This minimizes the amount of shade and maximizes light interception. This characteristic is extremelly important as White trillum is most commonly found in closed canopy forests (Rooney et. al. 2001).

Reproduction: White trillium is a nonclonal plant that remains underground in its "dormant" phase through fall and winter (Rooney et. al. 2001) The plant's seeds germinate in the spring, and small, primary roots develop (Hanzawa et. al. 1993). However, the cotyledon (part of embryo within the seed) does not grow to be photosynthesic until the second growing season (Hanzawa et. al. 1993). The first leaf is produced in the third growing season, and the plant grows the typical three leaves when the plant grows to an undefined size (Hanzawa et. al. 1993). Reproductive White trillium tend to be larger than nonreproductive plants. For older plants, the flowering season from April to June. As noted in the description, this plant takes a great deal of time to grow, thus proving the saying that if you pick a White trillium, it takes at least 7 years to grow back.

Photo of White Trillium, Paul Drobot, University of Wisconsin:

Dispersal: White trillium seeds are primarily dispersed by ants, most commonly by the species Aphaenogaster rudis. This method of dispersal is known as myrmecochory, in which the ant collects the seed as it contains food for their larvae (Hanzawa 1993). After eating this food, called the elaiosome, the seed is unharmed and deposited away from the maternal plant thus avoiding competition. The new seed grows in the ant’s nutrient rich deposited waste and produces a new plant. The seed is also dispersed by White-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus virginianus, who ingest and defecate the seed, moving the seed several kilometers from the original plant (Vellend 2005).

Defenses and Natural Enemies: This plant's major natural enemy is the White-Tailed Deer, who ingest the large, reproductively active plants. In a 1998 study, deer ate 26% of the trillium in a measured plot and out of the remaining plants, only 46% flowered in the following year (Rooney et. al. 2001). The fact that the deer choose to eat the larger plants produces two major consequences for White trillium. First, the largest plants are the plants that tend to flower, and by eating these, the deer can prevent reproduction in that specific year (Rooney et. al. 2001). Second, this same study proved that herbivory reduces the plants size in the following year. A size change can reduce White trillium's access to sunlight and therefore hinder photosynthesis as well as reduce long term reproductive success (Rooney et. al. 2001).

Related species (congeners) in Northwoods: The plant Trillium erectum (Red Trillium) is also found in the North Woods, and shares the same genus with White Trillium.


  • Hanzawa, F. M., & Kalisz, S. (1993). The relationship between age, size, and reproduction in Trillium grandiflorum (liliaceae). American Journal of Botany. 80(4), 405-410.
  • Knight, T. M. (2007).Population-level consequences of herbivory timing in Trillium grandiflorum. The American Midland Naturalist. 157, 27-38.
  • Plants for a Future, Trillium grandiflorum. Retrieved April 26, 2007, from Plants for a Future: Database Search Results Web site:
  • Rooney, T. P. , & Waller, D. M. (2001). How experimental defoliation and leaf height affect growth and reproduction in Trillium grandiflorum. Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society.
  • University of Texas, Native plant information network: Trillium grandiflorum. Retrieved April 26, 2007, from Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, University of Texas at Austin Web site:
  • University of Wisconsin, Trillium grandiflorum. Retrieved April 26, 2007, from Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium Web site:
  • USDA, Plants profile: Trillium grandiflorum. Retrieved April 26, 2007, from United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resources Conservation Service Web site:
  • Vellend, M. (2005). Land-use and plant performance in populations of Trillium grandiflorum. Biological Conservation. 124, 217-224.
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