Me: Oh wow, the trilliums are really carpeting this maple grove today. I should pick one for Mom. Surely one bloom can’t hurt…
Trillium: That’s what you think!
Me: Oh, hello. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were a talking flower. I seem to be running into a lot lately.
T: Spare me the pleasantries. Just get your fingers away from my stem!
M: I don’t see what the big deal is. I mean, it’s just one flower. It will fade in a few days anyways. What’s the harm?
T: First of all, it’s my sexual organ. How would you like someone pulling off yours?
M: Eww, I’d never thought of it like that.
T: I’m not finished! It took me seven years to grow this blossom. Seven. Years. What have you accomplished in that time?
M: Well, I got a biology degree…Wait a minute. Seven years? How is that possible? I thought plants flowered every year.
T: Not trilliums.
M: But seven years, isn’t that a little excessive?
T: We’re pretty slow growing, and we like it that way. It gives us time to scope the place out. In addition, our seeds are pretty needy. We don’t start to grow unless the soil is really moist, and we’ll wait as long as we have to.
M: What happens during those seven pre-flower years?
T: Year one is roots, year two is an embryonic leaf, and year three is the real leaf. Around year five I get one of those voluptuous three-lobed leaves. You have no idea how good that feels.
M: I guess I wouldn’t. But now that you flower every year, what’s stopping me from picking the blossom?
T: Geez, you just won’t let it drop, will you? Okay, I confess, the real problem isn’t actually the flower. It’s the leaf.
T: Yes. It’s very hard to pick the flower without damaging the leaf, which happens to be my only source of food via photosynthesis. Remember how it takes me a full year to grow this thing? If I’m leafless for a year, I can’t make food to get me through the winter. A picked leaf is a death sentence.
M: Gosh, I didn’t realize!
T: Humans rarely do.
M: So what kind of trillium are you, exactly?
T: I’m Trillium grandiflorum, the big white-flowered one. I’m also Ontario’s provincial flower.
M: You seem to be a little bit pink. You’re not a love child between one of these white trilliums and red trilliums, are you?
T: Nope. I’m Trillium grandiflorum through and through. Our petals turn pink as they age. They last up to several weeks, not like those weakling tulips.
M: I see you’re surrounded by dozens of other trilliums. Is each flower an individual plant?
T: You bet.
M: Why do you all live so close together? Don’t you have to compete for nutrients and sunlight?
T: First of all, I’m kind of like a vampire. I don’t like light. I will silently scream in full sunlight. So clear-cutting my forests is bad. It wipes out my colony completely.
M: But why grow in colonies?
T: Well, to tell you the truth, it’s because we have a bit of dispersal problem. While other plants spread their seeds around using birds or the wind, ours are spread by ants. And ants don’t go very far.
M: How do you convince the ants to carry your seeds?
T: Sheer chemical trickery. Half the seed is an elaiosome, or oily appendage. These ant-snacks smell like the insect corpses that ants love to eat.
T: Tell me about it. Sometimes the ants are so hungry they break into the fruit and take their seeds back to the nest. They eat their fake dead-insect, then leave the seed to germinate in a tunnel. Nice and buried in the moist earth.
M: Is there anything else that puts you in danger, other than leaf-picking humans and clear-cutting?
T: Deer are not immune to our charms. We get munched on by them a lot. Just the price you pay for being an adorable early-riser in the spring when there’s not much to eat. But if they graze on me to much, they will kill me.
T: Yep, if there are lots of deer in area, we can die out within 12 years.
M: That’s awful!
T: Yes, but they did save our butts during the ice age, according to trillium lore.
M: How did they do that?
T: In the ice age it was way too cold for us to grow in Ontario and Quebec. Deer swallowed our seeds and carried them southward in their intestines. Not the most luxurious way to travel, but hey, at least now we’re here to tell the tale.
M: You’ve given me a lot to think about next time I see a trillium.
T: And no picking?
M: No picking, I promise.