Wild Ideas: On the hunt for a shy trillium   

Last year, along a trail I hike frequently in Rappahannock County, I found a trillium that is rare in Virginia and a bit hard to spot. This year, I went looking for more.

This is not a species of trillium I’d seen before, so when I found it, I had checked my Flora of Virginia app. I easily determined that it was a nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum) because, among the 10 trillium species that are known to grow in Virginia, I’m familiar with most of them. Taking measurements of the one I found also helped: 8.5 inches tall, white blooms about 0.75 inches in diameter with recurved petals, and leaves that are 2.5 inches long and 2.25 inches wide. The easiest identification point was the shyness of its pretty, if little, bloom, which usually hides under the leaves, nodding toward the forest floor.

This trillium tends to be a loner, not appearing in clusters like most trillium. The large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflora) along the Trillium Trail in Thompson Wildlife Management Area (WMA), for example, is estimated to number in the millions there.

After discovering a long rare nodding trillium last year, Pam Owen recently found another not far away. By Pam Owen

On the range map for the nodding trillium, the Flora app showed it has only been reported in Rappahannock and three adjacent counties: Fauquier, Warren and Clarke. Globally, it has a conservation ranking of G5: “secure — common, widespread and abundant.” But in Virginia, its state ranking is S2, “imperiled” — “at a high risk of extirpation from the state due to very restricted range, very few populations (often 20 or fewer), steep declines or other factors.”

Knowing the odds were against my finding another of this species nearby, on April 22 I still went poking around for others. I spent a couple of hours, starting well below the first one, circling around it and up the slope. I ran into plenty of other common spring ephemerals blooming on the way, including Jack-in-the-pulpit, violets and tons of star chickweed. Mayapple covered much of the forest floor up and down the slope, especially near the forest edge, and was getting ready to pop, as was cranesbill, aka wild geranium. (Both are now in full bloom.) Reaching a spring, I found a lush treasure trove of flowering plants and ferns around it. A few I hadn’t seen before but, according to the references I consulted later, they are quite common elsewhere.

Finally, I hit the jackpot: another nodding trillium more beautiful than the original one. Since the blooms hang under the leaves, I had to lie down on the forest floor to photograph it, trying not to squash other ephemerals along with poison ivy, both of which were prolific there. Circling back to the original trillium, which had just started blooming, I photographed its flowers, too. Last year it had only one, and that one was damaged. This year, it had two. One bloom started below the leaves but, uncharacteristic of the species, soon ended up on top of them.

Last Sunday (April 28), hiking in the area again, I was in pursuit of a hooded warbler and a red-eyed vireo I had heard singing there on an earlier hike. I slogged up the wet slope in a drizzle of rain, coming to the tree where the vireo was singing. Even with my binoculars, I couldn’t spot him.

What I did spot, nearby, was yet another nodding trillium, not far from the one I had found blooming in the area on the previous hike. This new one was just budding. I only had my cell phone to take a photo, and the day was too dark and rainy to get a great shot, but at least the camera in the phone stored GPS data so I could find the plant again. I took a couple more shots of the trillium and some showy orchis not far from it before carefully making my way back down the slope, giving up on finding the birds but happy to have discovered another nodding trillium.

I’ve reported the three nodding trillium I’ve found so far to a vegetation ecologist I know at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation for inclusion in the Virginia Natural Heritage Program’s BIOTICS database. This database “stores the data and maps for all rare species (plants and animals) and significant natural community occurrences,” as he describes it. He told me only one other sighting of the species has been reported in Rappahannock, in 1981. This is the first time I’ve found something worth submitting, so I was pleased to contribute the data and photos.

The spring ephemeral-wildflower show is now peaking, so anyone interested in seeing any of these lovely flowers should do it soon, before they disappear for the year. Take it from me, it’s worth the effort. (For where to go, and the slideshow of the nodding trillium and the other plants I discovered on the hunt for it below.

© 2019 Pam Owen

Where to see spring ephemeral wildflowers

Spring ephemerals come out early in forests, blooming and disappearing before the canopy closes over them. Here are some good spots nearby to see them before they’re gone:

  • The Trillium Trail at Thompson WMA. Go to the WMA’s website for a description and fees, directions and a map of the site.
  • Shenandoah National Park, which holds its annual Wildflower Weekend May 11-12. The event includes lots of guided wildflower hikes. View the downloadable brochure on the park’s website.
  • Trails in other nearby public parks, including Sky Meadows and Shenandoah River state parks, and Rappahannock County Park.
Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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