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Trillium in the South

Will Stuart | E-Mail | Posted 02-01-2010

Lance-leafed Trillium

Lance-leafed Trillium - Will Stuart

"Destination" Wildflowers

Stevens Creek Heritage Preserve in South Carolina's Sumter National Forest is regarded by many as one of the most unique botanical communities in the Southeast. In late March 2007, I drive from Charlotte to North Augusta. I then exit I-20 for the final 20 miles north to Clarks Hill, SC. Below this hamlet, Clarks Hill dam holds back the waters of the Savannah River to form massive Lake Strom Thurmond. Following directions from the SCDNR website, I find the parking area and begin hiking into the 434 acre preserve.

I admire spring beauty and squirrel-corn thriving on the bluff above the stream, two species I would not expect to see at this elevation. I stop to photograph clusters of shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) and false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum), both uncommon in the South Carolina but common in the ravines along the preserve's loop trail.

On the banks of Stevens Creek I find many newly emerged lance-leafed trillium (Trillium lancifolium) but only a few are beginning to blossom. I am too early to see the peak trillium populations of this special place but I leave with an appreciation of why noted North Carolina botanist A. E. Radford considered this relict plant community "one of the most unique floristic sites in the two Carolinas."

Relict Trillium

Relict Trillium - Will Stuart

I spend the night in North Augusta and early the next morning visit another well-known wildflower destination. The small (84 acre) Savannah Bluffs Heritage Preserve is home to the confederate wakerobin, one of two Southeast trilliums on the federal endangered species list.

Often called relict trillium, Trillium reliquum is a Southeast endemic known to inhabit a few scattered sites in South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. As with other trillium species (and many spring ephemerals), new leaves emerge from the prior year's leaf litter in early spring to take advantage of a sun-bathed forest floor. By the time the canopy leaves emerge and shade the understory, the trillium blossoms will have faded. Soon thereafter the whorl of mottled leaves (technically bracts) will yellow and wilt, a season's work complete.


According to Case and Case, authors of Trilliums (an excellent resource for the genus), there are 45 plus species of trillium worldwide. All are found only in the northern hemisphere. A half-dozen species are native to eastern Asia, another half-dozen to western North America, and the remaining 35 species (there is always debate on an exact number) native to eastern North America. Of these 20 or so species are native to the Southeast and several, like relict trillium, have very limited geographic distribution.

Trillium species are categorized as either sessile or pedicillate. In the 20 species of sessile trillium, a single blossom "sits" directly on the whorl of leaves. In the 15 remaining species, often regarded as the more "showy" trillium, blossoms develop from a flower stalk (pedicel) extending above, or nodding below, the leaves. All members of the genus have a whorl of 3 leaves and all trillium have blossoms with three sepals and three petals.

Trillium luteum

Trillium luteum - Will Stuart

A Smoky Mountain's Spring

Little River Road near Gatlinburg, TN is widely regarded as a world-class wildflower destination. The real action along this winding, scenic, and often busy road starts beyond Elkmont Campground where the rushing waters of the Little River emerge to parallel Little River Road for the 10-mile distance to Townsend.

I make my first stop of the day at Metcalf Bottoms picnic area and take advantage of the morning light to enjoy and photograph yellow wakerobin (Trillium luteum), a showy sessile trillium with mottled green leaves. I have a difficult time picking my "perfect" subjects from hundreds of tall, lemon-yellow blossoms that blanket the roadside.

The day is warming as I leave Metcalf and continue west along Little River Road, once a logging railroad and now a popular motor route to Cades Cove. Rock faces and steep banks along the narrow road are alive with purple phacelia, columbine, foamflower, and miterwort. Dense clusters of bright red fire pink make it difficult for me to keep at least one eye on the road. I enter the section known as Little River Gorge and pull into one of the roadside turnouts. The flora in the Smoky Mountains is simply gorgeous during the spring, if you know where to look..

Trillium simile

Trillium simile - Will Stuart

As I step out of my Jeep, frequent calls of Black-throated Green Warblers descend from surrounding hemlocks. In either direction from my parking spot large sweet white trillium (Trillium simile) grow in thick clusters, their white blossoms reflecting the bright early morning sun.

Although narrow shoulders, passing automobiles, and contrasting sunshine and shade complicate the task of getting good photos, there is no place I would rather be on a warm spring morning in early April.

A Mountain Bridge Endemic

South Carolina's Mountain Bridge Wilderness area is recognized as a botanical treasure. I try to visit Jones Gap State Park each April to hike the Jones Gap Trail, a 19th century toll road along the Middle Saluda River from Jones Gap toward Caesar's Head . (I strongly recommend a weekday visit. The parking lot, more a wildflower garden than a traditional parking lot, fills quickly on weekends and you may be asked to wait at the gate.) On April 11th 2008, there are only three other cars in the parking lot as I arrive mid-morning. I park, retrieve my tripod and camera, and pause to admire clusters of sweet betsy (Trillium cuneatum) in the parking area. I head toward the visitor center and cross the bridge to the start of the blue-blazed hiking trail. For the first 1/4 mile I admire a few remaining bloodroot, giant chickweed, rue anemone, and long-spurred purple violets. As the trail continues its gradual westward ascent I spot the first group of the slender erect white trillium that grow here and perhaps nowhere else on earth. Botanists have identified this population as an erect form of Catesby's trillium (Trillium catesbaei) and for the next half-mile or so, hundreds of blossoms cluster on either side of the trail. As I continue my ascent toward Caesar's Head, I see fewer and fewer of these small, early trillium. Other trillium species (including Vasey's trillium) will emerge along this section of the trail in the following weeks.

'Jones Gap' trillium

"Jones Gap" trillium - Will Stuart

Sweet Betsy

Sweet Betsy - Will Stuart

Steps to Foothills Trail

Steps to Foothills Trail - Will Stuart

Jocassee and the Blue Wall

The Savannah River drainage has its origins in the tri-state area where North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia share a border. On April 18th 2006, I drive 3-plus hours to NC's Whitewater Falls to find pale yellow trillium (Trillium discolor), a sessile trillium species endemic to the Jocassee area.

I park in the USFS lot and follow the paved trail to the upper observation point. The upper falls are impressive but, with few leaves on the trees, I conclude April is not the time of year for a landscape shot.

Some 164 sturdy wooden steps descend to a lower observation platform where I find a branch trail and continue down more primitive steps toward the Foothills Trail. At the junction of the Foothills Trail I turn right and within 100m I am admiring Trillium discolor, pale pink Catesby's trillium, and large, deep-red Vasey's trillium, all 3 species in full bloom side-by-side above the trail. The steep slope allows me to get eye-level shots of both Catesby's and Vasey's trillium, two very showy nodding species whose blossoms descend below their leaf whorls.

An hour later, hiking back up 300 steps seems easier knowing I have added a new trillium species to my life list!

Vasey's Trillium

Vasey's Trillium - Will Stuart

Trillium discolor

Trillium discolor - Will Stuart

Whitewater Falls NC

Located near the Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina border, Whitewater Falls can be found along highway NC 281, just across the North Carolina border from SC. There is a sign marking the entrance for the parking area.

Catesby's Trillium

Catesby's Trillium - Will Stuart

Trillium grandiflorum

Trillium grandiflorum - Will Stuart

The Blue Ridge Parkway

By late April trillium at lower elevations have faded away but in the North Carolina mountains it is still springtime. In mid-May a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway south from Grandfather Mountain (MP 300) to the vicinity of Linville Falls (MP 320) will provide roadside views of northern species reaching their southern limits in the Carolina mountains.

Great white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), the provincial flower of Ontario, Canada, will blanket hardwood coves along the parkway from late April through mid-May. Large, pure white petals often fade to a pale pink as this trillium's blossoms begin to wilt, a very showy final act.

An equally photogenic trillium, painted trillium (Trillium undulatum) prefers a lower pH and is very happy growing in a roadside carpet of sphagnum moss near MP 317 (Be sure to look for pink lady slippers nearby). While these two trillium species are not likely to grow side-by-side, both species are seen along this section of the Parkway as soil conditions change from mile to mile.

A third northern species, erect trillium (Trillium erectum) is frequently seen in dense colonies near the Parkway. The blossom color of this species varies from pale white to deep maroon with a peak blossom time from mid-April to mid-May depending upon elevation.

Painted trillium

Painted trillium - Will Stuart

Erect trillium

Erect trillium - Will Stuart

Blue Ridge Parkway

Grandfather Mountain (MP 300) thru the vicinity of Linville Falls (MP 320). Late April thru mid-May.

Trillium grandiflorum

Trillium grandiflorum - Will Stuart

There is snow in the air as I complete this article but I have seen daffodils pushing up through the flower beds in my yard and I know spring is not far off. I am planning a trip to "The Pocket" near Pigeon Mountain GA, to find and photograph Trillium flexipes, another species to add to my "life list".

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