…and there where the pale April sunlight filters through the leafless branches, nod myriads of these lilies, each one guarded by a pair of mottled, erect, sentinel-like leaves.
~ Mrs. William Starr Dana in How to Know the Wild Flowers, 1917
Few spring woodland flowers put on a show like Erythronium americanum (although I am wondering if it is now called E. umbilicatum according to recent botanical references). The yellow flowers and mottled leaves often form expansive carpets in the leaf litter of rich woodlands in the Piedmont and Mountains.
Most of us know it by a variety of other names, most commonly Trout Lily. But others have called it a variety of names including Fawn Lily, Yellow Adder’s Tongue, and Dog Tooth Violet. When I first started my career as a naturalist with state parks, I found myself racing to learn as much about the plants and animals of North Carolina as possible so I could train rangers and develop programs for the public. I was weak in plants, especially wild flowers, and I found myself trying to find interesting information to share with people about the plants once I identified them. One reference I stumbled upon was How to Know the Wild Flowers, A Guide to the Names Haunts and Habits of our Common Wild Flowers by Mrs. William Starr Dana (online at https://archive.org/stream/howtoknowwildflo00staruoft#page/n9/mode/2up).
Her insights into plant names and uses provided some welcome tidbits to pass along in programs and helped me to better appreciate the abundant wild flowers of our state. Here is what she said about the many common names of Erythronium (which she listed as Yellow Adder’s Tongue and Dog’s Tooth Violet)…
The two English names of this plant are unsatisfactory and inappropriate. If the marking of its leaves resembles the skin of an adder why name it after its tongue? And there is equally little reason for calling a lily a violet. Mr. Burroughs (John Burroughs, a famous naturalist and writer) has suggested two pretty and significant names. Fawn Lily, he thinks, would be appropriate, because a fawn is also mottled, and because the two leaves stand up with the alert, startled look of a fawn’s ears. The speckled foliage and perhaps its flowering season are indicated in the title, trout lily, which has a spring-like flavor not without charm.
The flowers have three petals which are yellow on both sides (with a band of purple along the top midrib) and three sepals (that are yellow underneath and purplish-maroon on top). Together, when of a similar shape and color, they are often called tepals.
They join at the base forming a somewhat tubular structure when closed. Flowers close each night and usually open by mid-morning on sunny days, but may remain partially closed on particularly cloudy or rainy days.
When they do open, it can be a remarkable change, from a purplish-maroon drooping tube to a dancing yellow flower, almost as if a strong puff of air has blown up from underneath. Now the tepals all reflex upward and inward, exposing the reddish stamens below.
A Trout Lily that flowers always has two leaves. Since only a small portion of each colony of plants produces a flower in any given season, the vast majority of plants only produce one leaf. The extra leaf may be for the added energy required to produce a flower and seed.
Colonies of this beautiful flowering plant form more by vegetative reproduction than sexual means. Plants have deep corms which are bulb-like underground stems that store food. These corms produce additional corms which helps create colonies of cloned plants which can be decades old. One reference said the mottled pattern in cloned plants is similar, so you can look at the leaves of a large patch of the plants and determine how many colonies are present, and how far each colony has spread. These dense colonies also help stabilize the soil with their network of underground connections. In addition, it has been shown that the leaves accumulate phosphorus from rain water and runoff at a level higher than most plants. This critical nutrient is then returned to the forest soil in a form more available to plants when the Trout Lily leaves decay.
The abundant, early-blooming flowers also serve as an important source of pollen for queen bumblebees when they emerge and begin construction of their nests. So, this plant of multiple names also has multiple benefits for the forest and for the woods-watchers who enjoy its brief appearance each spring. The naturalist, John Burroughs, described a feeling many of us have had when he wrote…
In my spring rambles I have sometimes come upon a solitary specimen of this yellow lily growing beside a mossy stone where the sunshine fell full upon it, and have thought it one of the most beautiful of our wild flowers.