• Lisa Davis

An April Walk in the Woods: Part 3

Trout Lily:



aka trout lily, adder's tongue, fawn lily, and dog-tooth violet
Erythronium americanum in April

When I was a little girl, I brought my mother a handful of these delightful little flowers and she told me they were called adder’s tongue. Despite being an experienced gardener now, and loving these wildflowers for over half a century, I’ve discovered there is always something new to learn.


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Why These Common Names?

Although this plant’s official name is Erythronium americanum, they are also called trout lilies, fawn lilies, dog-tooth violets, and adder’s tongue. The plant officially belongs in the Liliaceae (aka the lily) family, so this part of the names makes sense to me. But these are the other reasons they are called what they are:

Close up of a trout lily with it's anthers

Adder’s Tongue: This has become my least favorite name for this flower because it is the least validly descriptive. Some people think the flower resembles the open mouth of a snake. If one has a vivid imagination, I suppose one of the long anthers can resemble a snake’s tongue. However unlike this flower, adder snakes are not native to North America. An explanation for this name that makes the most sense to me is there is a type of fern that is also called Adder’s Tongue. (Ophioglossum reticulum). It has two similar shaped leaves to Erythronium americanum, but they are not mottled. The fern does grow a spore-bearing stalk that resembles a snakes’s tongue. I think someone at one time confused these two plants because of the similarly shaped leaves, and the name stuck.

Dog-tooth violet: This name comes from the color and shape of the underground bulbs, which resemble dog’s teeth, and are called corms. Some think this flower bears a likeness to yellow violets, however this flower is not a member of the violet family, so this common name is misleading.


the mottle leaf of a trout lily

Fawn Lily: The “fawn” part of the name is said to come from the two leaves of each plant looking like the upright ears of a fawn. I speculate that the mottled leaves can also look like a fawn’s spots, which helped solidify this name. This name makes sense to me.


Trout Lily: The leaves of this flower have the dappled appearance of sun shining through rippling water onto a speckled trout. They are also the general shape of this fish’s body. Personally, this descriptive name makes the most sense to me, and that is what I have started calling this April bloomer.

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the 3 petals and 3 sepals of a trout lily
3 petals and 3 sepals

I had always thought this flower had six petals, but it turns out that like both the red and white trilliums, they have 3 petals and 3 sepals. The petals and sepals are extremely similar in appearance, but the outsides of the sepals sport more of a bronzy tinge. Also like the trillium, they are native North American ephemerals and when it gets warm out, they go dormant and their leaves disappear until the following spring.


Unlike trilliums, these flowering plants have 2 leaves at their base. They grow in groups called colonies from bulb-like corms, and although they can produce seeds, they spread mostly by off-shoot runners. A runner forms a single leaf, which eventually grows a corm at its base. It can take up to seven years for the corm to get large enough to produce a second leaf and start flowering.


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Fun Fact:



a woodland fairy holding the flower she wears on a sunny April day
Addie Trout Lily

On sunny April days, the petals and sepals curve outward. However at night, or on cloudy, rainy days, the flowers close up again.

Trout Lilies on a Rainy Day

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In honor of adder’s tongue, the name I first learned these flowers to be from my mother, I named the little woodland girl clothed in this plant’s finery Addie. On her head she wears a rolled up partridgeberry leaf covering her rosy partridgeberry head. They were vining along the forest floor among a colony of trout lilies.


Trout lilies growing among vining partridgeberry plants
Trout Lilies and Partridge Berries

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While walking in the woods every spring, I understand how Rip Van Winkle lost so many years after entering the forests of the Catskill Mountains. Woodlands are enchanted places. Everything slows down as the world fades away. Seemingly ordinary flowers and plants become magical. When I bend to study them and gaze at them long enough, a connection transpires. It’s as if the energies of the flowers begin to communicate with me in an unspoken mystical language, and their vibrations inspire me to develop them into a humanistic physical form so I can have a closer relationship with them. Something beyond me and this world seems to guide my hands and eyes, and I experience pure joy as I see them take shape into little woodland beings.


Leah Trillium, Addie Trout Lily, and Robin Trillium with the flowers they wear.
Three Woodland Fairies with their Flowers



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