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  • Writer's pictureLisa Davis

An April Walk in the Woods: Part 2

This the second of a three part blog

Red Trilliums

a red trillium growing naturally in the woodlands of central NY

Red trilliums, Trillium erectum, grew sparsely in the countryside of St. Lawrence County where I grew up. When I discovered they populated our woods here in Oswego County in greater numbers than the white ones, I ran from clump to clump, bending to examine each one, excited as a kid on an Easter egg hunt.

When I started my first shade garden in the little nook between my north facing garage and east facing front porch many years ago, I had to have red trilliums for it. Trilliums are protected wildflowers, which means one can’t pick them or dig them up from someone else’s property without permission. But this was my property, I reasoned, and I was going to give them a wonderful new home and help them spread. I dug some up from our woods.

I didn’t wear gloves because I wanted to be able to feel around for the roots, which I have since learned are called rhizomes, to make sure I didn’t damage them. Before I resorted to my shovel, I used my hands to clear away debris at the base of the newly emerging shoots. There was a thick layer of old tree leaves from years past, small twigs, and all the rich organic materials that cover a forest floor. The punkies, aka biting midges, gnats, and no-see-ums by some, were out and about in full force. I flapped and slapped in a vain attempt to shoo them away from my face and neck.

I hadn’t taken into account that in addition to lovely wildflowers, our woods contains an abundance of poison ivy. Being highly allergic to that particular plant, I had become an expert at identifying its leaves. However poison ivy foliage has not yet appeared when trilliums begin to emerge. With no leaves visible, this plant did not cross my mind. What I also didn’t know at the time, was that besides the foliage, the stems and roots of this particular ivy plant also contain urushiol, that dastardly oil that produces an itchy, oozing rash in many.

Several days later, not only did I have a poison ivy rash all over my hands, but on my face and neck as well. Gardening can be a dangerous sport.


Tidbits about Red Trilliums

  • These are native North American wildflowers.

  • They have evolved to look and smell like rotting to meat to attract carion flies for fertilization. From the smell they have earned the nick-name Stinking Benjamins.

  • Another common name is Bethroot (from birth root). Native Americans used the root to make tea to treat menstrual disorders, and to induce and aid with childbirth.

  • They are also known as Wake Robins because both these flowers and the American robin herald spring and include the color red. That’s why I named this little woodland sprite Robin.


The red trilliums I dug up for my flowerbed so many years ago are still going strong. They are tucked near a rhododendron bush with columbine and foxglove nearby to bloom later. The clump grows bigger every year. They were definitely worth that bad case of poison ivy. The rash was temporary; the flowers will still be around when I am long gone.

red trillium flowers with little Robin Trillium posing in front of them

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