Yellow Trout Lily
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CLASSIFICATION: What’s in a name?
Scientific Name: Erythronium americanum ssp. americanum. The species name, americanum, refers to where it’s found – America!
Common Name: Yellow Trout Lily. What do you see when you look at the leaves? Perhaps you agree that the mottled pattern looks similar to that of a trout? The shape of the flowering shoot as it emerges is said to resemble a tongue, giving us another name for this plant – Adder’s Tongue. Despite not being a violet, it is also called Dog Tooth Violet, referencing the tooth-like shape of the white bulb it grows from.1 Having so many names can get confusing – that’s why scientists prefer to use its scientific name!
Family: Liliaceae (Lily Family) Why do you think scientists place it in this family? What similarities do you notice with other lilies? Plants in the Lily Family are perennials, and usually grow from bulbs, have leaves with parallel veins, have 6 tepals (petal-like structures), 6 stamens, and 3-chambered fruits.2
IDENTIFICATION: What does it look like?
Average Height: up to 8”
Description: A perennial plant that grows in colonies, spreading through horizontal shoots that can grow roots. The green leaves are smooth and mottled with brown and purple and are roughly 2-8” long and ½-2” wide. Immature plants have a single leaf while the mature, flowering plants have two leaves and one flower. The solitary flowers are ½-2” and have 6 yellow tepals (yes, like other lilies!) that are tinged with red on the outside. The flower hangs down toward the ground and the tepals spread and bend backward as the flower matures.1,2,3
Bloom time: Feb – Apr
Notes: It can be distinguished from similar Erythronium umbilicatum ssp. umbilicatum by auricles (“ears”) at the base of petals, a lack of indentation on the ovary or seed capsule, and a slightly later bloom time.2,4‘
LOCATION: Where is it at home?
Range: Found throughout most of the mountains and Piedmont of VA, but infrequent or absent in parts of the Coastal Plain.4 Colonies can be found throughout the Rivanna and James River drainages with one of the best populations in the state found just under four miles upstream from Riverview Park.
CONNECTIONS: What are its relationships to other plants, animals, and humans?
Flora associations: Often found with a wide array of other spring-blooming wildflowers such as mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica), spring beauty (Claytonia virginica var. virginica), and cut-leaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata).
Fauna associations: Many types of bees are among the more common visitors to these flowers. In addition to bumblebees and mason bees, mining bees pollinate the flowers. One species, Andrena erythronii, or the trout-lily mining bee, is strongly associated with Erythronium spp., but can also be seen visiting blooms of some other spring ephemerals and flowering trees.3
Erythronium americanum seeds have an attached nutrient-packed ‘elaiosome’–a tasty snack pack evolved to attract ants. These treats are especially attractive to winnow ants (genus Aphaenogaster), some of the most common ants in eastern deciduous forests. While winnow ants collect Erythronium seeds in order to eat the elaiosomes, the ants generally don’t remove them from the seeds until they reach their nest. Once there they commonly discard the elaiosome-stripped seeds in a ‘midden’, the ant colony’s nutrient-rich waste pile, and a perfect place for seed germination.5,6 This strategy of using ants for seed dispersal (formally known as myrmecochory) is common among many other spring ephemerals in our area, including spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), perfoliate bellwort (Uvularia perforliata), and several species of violets (Viola spp.), among others.5
Human associations: Over time, people have found a variety of medicinal and other uses for Erythronium americanum. The Cherokee people make tea to use as a fever reducer and crush the leaves to heal sores.7,8,9 An infusion made of a combination of Erythronium americanum and dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) is used to treat fainting.9 They even attract fish by chewing up the leaves and spitting into the water.7,8 The women of the Iroquois people use the plants as a contraceptive and the roots are also used to reduce swelling.8
We want these plants to thrive and for everyone who gets to visit the park to enjoy them, so remember – don’t pick flowers or other parts of the plant!!
Bibliography & Definitions