Trilliums — A Passing Fancy

| By Steven Foster

Our great spring wildflower season, punctuated by ephemeral showy woodland wildflowers is coming to an end. Among them are trilliums, intriguing because so little is known about them. There are 4–8  Asian Asian Trillium species and 38 species from North America, their center of biological diversity. Trilliums can hybridize and be difficult to identify. Conveniently, the Latin name and English name are the same. Often placed in the lily family (Liliaceae) botanists have given it a home in up to 4 different families.

Trillium sessile, Red Trillium, Sessile TrilliumFive Trillium species are shared between the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, including the Ozark wake robin Trillium pusillum var. ozarkanaum (T. ozarkanum) and White trillium T. flexipes both of which have flowers on nodding stalks. Three other species have stalkless, single flowers sitting atop three leaves in a whorl, including T. recurvatum purple wake robin; T. viridescens, green trillium; and the most common Ozark trillium, T. sessile known simply as wake robin or toadshade. An additional species dwarf white or snow trillium T. nivale is found in two Missouri Ozark counties.

One of the most interesting aspects of trilliums is how little is really known about them. In colonial America, the eastern N. American species, the red-flowered T. erectum, was commonly known as “beth” or “bethroot”, widely used by native Americans to facilitate childbirth. It was introduced to the medical profession by Stephen W. Williams, M.D. in the 1820 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine as a plant worthy of further research, with unique hemorrhage-reducing, pain-relieving and sedative qualities. However, at the time it was widely used by herbalists whom competed with medical doctors, hence the medical profession dismissed it’s potential. Most writers of the period suggest all trilliums could be used for the same purpose, yet only T. erectum is listed in most reference works.

An active compound deemed a “saponin” was first  isolated in 1856. Recently a small number of studies on trillium chemistry have identified 20 steroidal-saponins (steroid-like compounds), which may have similar effects to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, especially in relieving pain. Still, the biology and biological activity of Trilliums is largely unexplored and their potential as a research subject remains the same as it did in 1820!