The Trout Lily

One of the most delicate and widespread little wild lilies in North America blooms by the millions in northeastern Wisconsin hardwoods each late April into early May. Perhaps the reason that many people would be somewhat surprised by this statement is because this wildflower is seldom referred to as a lily. Mention the plant’s old-fashioned name, Dogtooth Violet, and many heads will immediately nod in recognition and agreement. More than one person will tell you they learned that name as a child and have used it ever since.

When a wildflower grows in so many regions on a continent, it’s bound to gather a host of different common names for the same plant. The most frequently used names in our area are Trout Lily, Fawn Lily and Spotted Adder’s-tongue. Elsewhere in North America you’ll find fascinating common names such as White Fawn Lily, Coast Fawn Lily, Glacier Lily, Minnesota Dwarf Lily, Yellow Bells, Yellow Snowdrop, Rattlesnake Tooth Violet, Yellow Snake Leaf, Lamb’s Tongue, Deer’s Tongue, Snake Root and Star Striker. My mother taught us to call it the Dogtooth Violet simply because it was the name her mother and a few of her favorite teachers used as well.

The name mystery deepens. Its genus name is Erythronium (air-eh-THRO-nee-um), after the Greek erythros, which originally described a deep pink or purple-flowered species. Indeed this was the European species the great Swedish botanist, Linnaeus, described and named “Erythronium dens-canis,” generally referring to a red flower having a root shaped like a dog’s tooth. The early Europeans who settled in North America soon discovered their beloved “dog-tooth” flower, but this one having either white or yellow lily-like flowers and growing in with carpets of violets. Naturally it was quite easy for the name Dogtooth Violet to come about, even though the flower is definitely a lily and not a violet!

Recently I decided to hike into our west woods, shovel in hand, locate a large patch of various stages of the Trout Lilies, single out one in full bloom and dig deeply enough to unearth the supposedly dog-tooth-shaped bulb. What I did learn was that ten inches was deep enough but that the very thin underground stem connected to the bulb was extremely fragile and broke off easily. Finally I decided to uproot a younger single-leaved plant, down to around seven or eight inches, and be satisfied with that leaf with attached bulb to be used for a picture and my teaching. It did turn out to be white, although covered by a very thin brownish coating that easily rubbed off. The so-called “dog’s tooth” in this case was quite roundish and not pointed in the slightest like a dog’s tooth. Further reference work indicated that the European species, which by the way is the only species in Europe and extends eastward to Japan, has a more pointed bulb somewhat like a dog’s tooth.

Hundreds of small, single leaves of the Trout Lily grow in the woods to every double-leaved flowering specimen. Seeds of these earliest of the lilies will germinate the following spring. Tiny thin whitish corms will form. Then, later in summer, an interesting thing happens. Brittle, white worm-like or thread-like structures appear above the ground, growing from these young roots. Botanists call them “droppers.” Down into the earth these droppers go, usually two or three per corm, each producing a brand new corm several inches away from the “parent” and also a few inches deeper into the soil.

These so-called “daughter corms” will each produce a single leaf the following year. Several years and many corms later, this one will finally produce a beautiful, slender, yellow Trout Lily. Little wonder there are so many leaves to so few blossoms! A good average is seven years from seed to flower.

At least 22 or more species of the Erythronium genus grow in North America. Only two species grow naturally in Wisconsin, E. americanum having yellow flowers, and E. albidum having white flowers. The yellow is more common in northern Wisconsin while the white is most likely to be more abundant in southern Wisconsin. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never seen the white Trout Lily, but it would be just my speed to spend several days, armed with a state permit and expert help, searching for the extremely rare and federally-threatened Minnesota Dwarf Trout Lily (E. propullans) whose extremely tiny flowers, usually four-petaled, are the size of a dime or smaller.

It grows very sparingly in only three counties and is endemic to that area, meaning that nowhere else in the entire world will that delicate little lily be found. Its main threats are urban development, increased recreational use of its habitat, and being “loved to death” by nature photographers, admirers and diggers. Regardless of posted signs and constant pleading, the flowers’ locations are easily spread by word of mouth. On second thought, I think I’ll remain home and be satisfied with our yellow Trout Lilies!

I challenged several classes of first graders many years ago to name this woodland favorite. They were all given one word to begin with – lily. It was their job to think up a name, having examined the blossom and its leaves during our hike in the woods. Several of their names were amazingly good and struck my fancy including: Snake Lily, Deer Lily, Pickerel Lily, Fawn Lily and Trout Lily. The newly emerging inch-long pointed maroon leaves, or perhaps the snake-tongue-like red stamens, brought about the very good name many years ago, “Spotted Adder’s Tongue,” adder referring to a snake.

It supposedly was the famous naturalist and writer, John Burroughs, who came up with Trout Lily due to the leaves’ resemblance to the mottled skin of a trout, or possibly its blossoming time corresponding to the start of the trout fishing season. He also liked Fawn Lily believing the two wide-spread mottled leaves of a flowering plant resembled the spots and floppy ears of a fawn while the sprightly flower reflected the alertness of

the young animal.

The abundant lily family surely provides us with many spectacular species; some extremely colorful and downright flamboyant, others delightfully fragrant and still a few that are deliciously palatable, such as Wild Asparagus. However, when it comes to the sporty little yellow lily decorating nearly every hardwoods in our region at this time, I would like to think of this plant saying, once and for all time, “Now you can call me Trout Lily, or you can call me Fawn Lily, or you can call me Spotted Adder’s-tongue, but PLEASE, don’t ever call me Dogtooth Violet!”