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Northland Nature: Trout-lilies join spring woods bouquet

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.”

Yellow and white trout-lilies grow next to each other in the May woods. Note the bent flowers with curled petals and sepals. (Photo by Larry Weber)
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Those of us who observe nature happenings are treated to an annual array of phenomena. Though nearly all are ones that we’ve seen before, we are willing to see again. Whether it is aurora, rainbows or autumn leaf colors, we are not willing to see them only once.

I find that wandering among spring woodland wildflowers in mid-May is such a phenomenon. After snow and cold, we are ready to see a floral show.

Taking advantage of the nearly 15 hours of sunlight that penetrates to the forest floor before tree leaves shade the scene, opportunistic spring wildflowers flourish for a short time. Since their blooming time is limited, they are often called ephemerals. Some are true ephemerals, some are not, but all are a delight to behold now as we walk.

Without exception, this annual floral show begins with the white and blue flowers of hepatica. Following shortly are the eight-petal bloodroots and the five pink petals of abundant spring beauties. Wood anemone and wild strawberry are present with their five white petals. Yellow appears in bellworts of the woods and marsh marigolds in swamps. Violets of purple, white or yellow add variety. More white is seen in the four petals of toothwort and scattered coltsfoot.

And the strange white of Dutchman’s breeches. While the three large petals of trillium are hard to not see, those of wild ginger are easy to miss. Well-known, too, are the trout-lilies.


We are fortunate to have in our region two species of trout-lilies: one white (Erythronium albidum) and one yellow (Erythronium americana). A third kind of trout-lily, the dwarf trout-lily (Erythronium propullans), grows in a few counties of southeast Minnesota and nowhere else.

White and yellow may be separate from each other or side by side. The plants grow up to about 6 inches tall. The leaves rise from soil and are abundant in the spring woods. Any patch will have hundreds of these leaves. Most are sterile — single leaves with no flowers. Flowers appear on plants of two leaves.

There are two explanations of why they are called trout-lilies. Some say that the splotches on the leaves look like that of a trout. Others say that the name comes from an early naturalist who observed that they bloom at about the time trout swim upstream to spawn. They are also called fawn-lily, dog-tooth violet and adder’s tongue.

Depending on the species, flowers are either white or yellow. Bent or curled back, they appear to have six petals, but as with other members of the lily family, they are actually three petals and three sepals, all the same color.

Trout-lilies are true ephemerals; they don’t last long. We need to get out and enjoy them when we can. Most spring wildflowers are best seen in the vernal sunlight. And they change each day. I suggest walking among these spring flora often; do not pick.

As the month progresses and tree leaves provide a canopy, shade tolerant flowers begin to take over. In the second half of May are jack-in-the-pulpit, starflower, baneberry, wild lily-of-the-valley, bunchberry, blue-bead lily (Clintonia), sarsaparilla, blue cohosh, columbine and the yellow and pink ladyslippers. Trees contribute to this floral display with white blossoms of plum, cherry, juneberry and elderberry.

As we walk among this amazing flowering show of May, we can also observe some early fungi and several kinds of fiddleheads sharing the forest floor. May woods walks are outstanding and worth going back for more, even if we see what we have seen before.


Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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