Wildflowers 101: Trillium

Wildflowers 101: Trillium

Tom Harrington

Painted trillium
Nodding trillium
Top: Painted trillium, Bottom: Nodding trillium

Story and images by Tom Harrington

As one gets into “wildflowering” in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they will most likely develop some favorite wildflowers or become fascinated with certain species. One of my favorite wildflowers is trillium, of which there are nine different varieties that can be located within the national park. In this article we will examine three species of trillium that can be enjoyed this time of year.

My favorite trillium is the painted trillium. This plant grows from 8 to 12 inches tall and has a white bloom with a red blaze that circles the bloom near the base. April and May are the months in which this plant normally blooms.The painted trillium is not commonly found. It has been my pleasure to see this plant in bloom on Mount Cammerer Trail and Alum Cave Bluff Trail. There are two types of trillium that have white blooms that are usually located below the leaves. These are the nodding trillium and the Catesby trillium, and their blooms can be seen in April and May also. It takes some effort to determine the difference between these two wildflowers. The best way to tell them apart is to look for the distinctive antlers sprouting from the bloom—the Catesby has yellow antlers whereas the nodding trillium’s are purple. Also, the petals of the Catesby trillium curve backwards sharply and seem more narrow than the petals of the nodding trillium. 

While both of these flowers are rarely seen, the Catesby is the more common of the two. I have found it blooming on a number of trails including Chestnut Top, Abrams Falls, and Ace Gap Trail. Unfortunately, I have only found the nodding trillium on the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail (after Sutton Overlook).

Painted trillium
Catsby trillium

Occasionally, these two species of trillium will have their blooms on top of the leaves(maybe Mother Nature is trying to confuse us). One very interesting feature of the Catesby trillium is that the bloom will often turn pink as it ages. Because of its nodding petals one wildflower book refers to the Catesby trillium as the “Bashful Wake Robin”. Incidentally, if you want to take a photo of one of these two trillium you will most likely have to get down on your stomach to get it done.

While out in the woods, it is stimulating to hunt for some of the wildflowers that are seen less often, and with trillium it is also challenging and fun to learn the identities of each one. Whenever we experience stress in our lives, we can get on a trail in the national park to “wildflower” and benefit ourselves both mentally and physically while having fun at the same time. Happy “wildflowering”!

Tom Harrington is an Army veteran and retired insurance agent who has spent his life in Knox County, TN. He is an avid hiker and has volunteered for GSMNP since 2000.

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