2017 Plant Of The Year | Trillium cuneatum

Jan 29, 2017 | Plant Of The Year

Trilliums are special to Georgia because our state is host to at least 22 species, more than any other state in the US. Thus, it seems particularly appropriate to name a member of this genus as the Georgia Native Plant Society’s 2017 Plant of the Year. Congratulations, and welcome to our gardens, sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)!

Trilliums can be divided into two broad categories: 1) pedicellate: flowers extend from the bracts via a short pedicel, and 2) sessile: flowers sit directly above the bracts. The latter are known as toadshade trilliums. This group includes our 2017 Plant of the Year, T. cuneatum (sweet Betsy, aka little sweet Betsy, purple toadshade, or whip-poor-will flower), as well as T. luteum (yellow trillium), and T. ludovicianum (Louisiana trillium).

Sweet Betsy shines as one of our state’s largest trillium species, with 12-20” peduncles and 3-8” cuneate (wedge-shaped) bracts. Like all toadshade trilliums, sweet Betsy’s bracts are heavily mottled in shades of green and grey-green. Such visually arresting foliage makes this trillium a springtime standout in woodland beds. In Georgia, sweet Betsy usually blooms between March and mid-April. Flowers are 1 ½-2 ¾ ” tall, having 3 erect, ovoid petals that overlap at the base, 3 smaller green or reddish-green sepals, 6 stamens, and a single 3-lobed ovary. Flower color can vary quite a bit. Maroon is the most common hue, but reddish-green, bronze, or yellow shades also occur. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish a yellow-ish flowered T. cuneatum from T. luteum. Scent may be a helpful differentiating factor.  Sweet Betsy’s flower has been described as anything from banana-like to ill-scented to spicy-sweet. In contrast, the flower of T. luteum smells distinctly lemony. As with other toadshade trilliums, sweet Betsy’s entire aboveground scape dies back in the heat of summer, to re-emerge the following spring from the dormant rhizome.

Sweet Betsy is a great selection for a shade garden. Native to deciduous woodland coves, plants are hardy, drought-resistant (although they prefer moist soil), somewhat deer proof, and extremely long-lived. After flowering, a sweet Betsy plant produces a pulpy, purplish-green seed capsule that looks like a small, 6-angled rose hip. Each seed is attached to a white eliasome, a key element in trillium reproduction. Trilliums have a symbiotic partnership with ants, and to a lesser extent, yellow jackets. These insects collect and feed on the eliasomes, dispersing the discarded seeds as far at they can crawl or fly.

Gardeners can propagate sweet Betsy by seed or rhizome division. To harvest trillium seeds, collect the fruits in June or July, squeeze out the seeds, and soak them for 15 min in 3% hydrogen peroxide to render the eliasomes unpalatable to insects. Do not let the seeds dry out, but instead sow them into soil immediately. Trilliums grown from seed can take up to 2 years to sprout a single bract, and up to 7 years to fruit. In contrast, rhizome division can produce plants in one season, although resulting offspring will be genetically identical. For this method, simply break the rhizome apart and replant, making sure that each rhizome segment has a growing point and some fibrous roots attached. New plants should appear the following spring, decked out in camouflage motley and ready to be admired.


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