Dumb Plant Facts with Lise: the Stanky Red Trillium

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — when trilliums are in bloom! Since I can’t get out in the woods much right now, instead have some completely useless facts about red trilliums.

Red trillium (Trillium erectum), like all trilliums, is a monocot, meaning it arises from a seed with a single cotyledon or seed leaf. Most plants are dicots, which have seeds with two cotyledons, so this makes trilliums a little bit special. At least, when I was a young teenager, I thought monocots were pretty cool.

That probably says something about cool a teenager I was not.

Therefore trilliums are class Liliopsida (monocot)*, and order Liliales, both of which are fancy ways of saying, with varying degrees of freedom… “it’s kind of like a lily.” But rather than being a member of family Liliaceae, it’s a member of the bunchflower family, Melanthiaceae, which are described as — get this — “lilioid monocots.”

That is… “it’s kind of like a lily.” Boy, botanists are good at naming things.

* Botanists will argue if monocots are a class or a clade. A clade is a category distinct from a taxa, based on a system of classification that is more focused on evolutionary relationships between plants than taxonomy traditionally is. (Except taxonomy is becoming more evolutionary-focused… okay, let’s not go into the whole weird conversation I had when I asked ChatGPT to explain cladistics to me). But for the purposes of this post — where I will never mention cladistics again! — let’s go with what iNaturalist says, which is that class Liliopsida = monocots.

Also grasses are in class Liliopsida, too. LOOK I DON’T MAKE THE RULES.

Have I lost you yet? No? Oh good. Let’s get into the actual dumb plant facts. Some these are about trilliums as a genus; some are more specific to red trilliums.

  • Every aerial structure in trilliums — leaves, sepals, petals, reproductive structures — comes in multiples of threes. Hence the “tri” in the name.

    … Wait, I just realized… it’s basically “tri-lilium,” isn’t it? Botanists, you bastards.
  • As a super cool teenager (already established), I typed up the Mary Oliver poem “Trilliums” for a school assignment. (Which is technically about T. grandiflorum, the white trillium). In the process I discovered… each line is indented by three spaces. Mary Oliver, you magnificent bastard, I read your book! (Dream Work, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986)
  • T. erectum has a funky-looking six-lobed ovary with six stamens arranged around it. (See picture below). Again: multiples of three.
Closeup of red trillium, showed the male and female reproductive structures.
Closeup of red trillium’s male and female reproductive structures. Hubba hubba. Source: Wikipedia
  • This makes the red trillium monoecious, meaning it has both male and female reproductive structures on the same plant. (Hubba hubba). And since there’s only a single influorescence (a fancy way of saying “flower”), it is also a “perfect” or bisexual flower, having both pistils and stamens.

    Thank you, botanists, for acknowledging the perfection of bisexuals. I’m ready for your hot take on elf-earred disaster bisexuals; call me 🤙
  • Red trilliums, being bisexual, can self-pollinate (wait, you can’t?) However, they set seed more reliably when cross-pollinated. It’s hypothesized this is because it has a “self-incompatibility” mechanism, which a number of different plants have as an adaptation. Presumably this encourages genetic diversity?

    Considering plants can reproduce asexually, they already have a lot to answer for when it comes to genetic diversity 😂
  • Trilliums are morphologically “scapes,” meaning they produce no true leaves or stems above ground. (Think of a garlic scape… GODDAMNIT I ALREADY SAID DO NOT EAT THE TRILLIUM). The stem is just an extension of the rhizome, and the “leaves” are actual flower bracts. However, these bracts photosynthesize, and have the same internal and external structure as leaves, so for all intents and purposes… they’re leaves.

That’s all the dumb (red) trillium facts I’ve got, nature fiends. It’s breakfast time as I write this, so maybe I’ll go have a nice omelet now, with garlic and tomatoes AND DEFINITELY NOT TRILLIUMS.

Featured image: two red trilliums (Trillium erectum). Taken by Lise Fracalossi, May 1 2020, in Lane Conservation Area in Lunenburg, MA.

Meet Me In the Woods: Hepatica americana

(Look, I’ve been listening to a lot of Lord Huron lately and I couldn’t turn down the chance to make a reference)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The snow has melted, spring ephemerals are… ephemering, and woodpeckers are gettin’ it on in the trees.

In my continuing effort to bring you more dumb plant facts, I figured I’d share some of the pictures of what I’ve been seeing in the woods in the past ~week or so.

This is round-lobed hepatica, Hepatica americana. It is a small and oft-overlooked spring ephemeral, found in the first weeks of April here in Massachusetts. For that reason, I like to call it my birthday flower, because it’s one of the few things blooming on April 6! In particular, these pictures were taken in Williamsburg, MA, on April 7th, during my annual “yurtmas” birthday trip.

The name “hepatica” — as you might guess if you’ve ever had to have a hepatic function test — refers to the liver. In some places it also has the common name of “liverwort” (not to be confused with the bryophytes of the same name) or “liverleaf.” So how did it get this name? At least according to the above Wikipedia article:

The word hepatica derives from the Greek ἡπατικός hēpatikós, from ἧπαρ hêpar ‘liver’, because its three-lobed leaf was thought to resemble the human liver.

“Hepatica” on Wikipedia, by way of the OED

*whispers* I don’t think the liver has three lobes, but what do I know.

I’d add this one to my list of “dumb common names,” but listen, the scientific name is dumb, too.

My personal experience with finding hepatica is that they are elusive. For one thing, they are really small — those plants are about 3″ high and the flowers are about the size of a penny. They grow in drifts, but you can walk right by them and never notice them. I’ve had a few instances where I found a single group and then looked down to realize I’d nearly stepped on a few on my way there.

I’m also not entirely certain about what sort of habitats they like. I have often found them growing on hillsides or at the base of trees. The hillsides make sense — they like well-drained soil — but I’m unaware of any symbiosis they might have with particular trees. And even knowing those facts about where to find them… I’ve not had luck finding them in places I might expect to find them.

I know of only one place they grow in my town, and I try to make it there every April. Here are some pics I took last year at that pilgrimage site: Robbs’ Hill Conservation Area in Lunenburg, MA.

In conclusion: stay sneaky, hepatica. If anyone caught on to how beautiful you are, you might be in danger.

Dumb Plant Facts with Lise: the shit rose Multiflora

(In fulfillment of day 7 of Words in May)

Multiflora rose — whose Latin name is Rosa multiflora, logically enough — is kind of a shit rose.

A lovely portrait of a shit rose.

It is native to east Asia, but definitely not North America, where it has become wildly invasive.

… if you know me at all, you know I have a bee in my bonnet about the term “invasive,” but my definition of a shitty invasive is “can I find it naturalized in woodlands behind my house?”

And indeed I can. Especially in reclaimed areas, you can find thickets of it and Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) intertwined, choking out native plants and doing its shitty best to give me the 3.476 thorn scratches I am required to display after every walk through woods.

Why the heck is it even in this country? It is yet another example of “let’s bring in a non-native plant to help with an ecological problem…. WELL I GUESS THAT BACKFIRED.” The problem was soil erosion; now you have the problem that is UP TO MY EYEBALLS IN SHIT ROSES.

You see it a lot in reclaimed farmlands, where it was used extensively as a cattle brake. Why? This might surprise you, but it turns out that cows don’t like running face first into a wall of thorns.

This is the Wei. My mom had a Chinese exchange student named Wei (first tone, straight line over the “i” in Pinyin). We were trying to figure out what her name translated to; she knew it was a type of flower but she didn’t know the translation in English. So she asked Chinese-language Google, and lo and behold, it means “multiflora rose.”

… it’s an awkward conversation to tell someone they share a name with an invasive species. Usually I only have those conversations with leshy in my Pathfinder games.

The way to tell multiflora rose apart from other, less shit roses? Well, for one thing it has large inflorescences. That’s a botany way of saying “big-ass flowers.” They are usually white, too, and there are lots of them on a single branch.

But my favorite ONE WEIRD TRICK to identifying multiflora rose? The petiole (leaf stalk) looks like a feather:

Behold: a shit rose feather.

In conclusion: multiflora rose: unless you have cattle, absolutely no good will come of having this in your yard.