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!

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Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-six years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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