The quest for the unusual shade plants for the garden – Trilliums

I am always seeking unusual plant species and varieties.  Even with the many two plant species already in my garden, I never stop searching for the rare and unusual to add.  Unfortunately, some of those plants always don’t survive my conditions (soil and/or growing zone) but I at least I enjoy the challenge of trying them until I am sure I cannot keep them on my site

I have had white trilliums and red nodding trilliums in my gardens for close to nine years now and as well as Jack-in-the-pulpit for the last 5 years. These are some of my most favourite plants for the garden and I want to share some tips, so you can grow them too. 


Most people know what a trillium looks like with its signature three leaves but most don’t realize that its name is derived from the fact that everything about the plant occurs in threes, the leaves, flower petals, three-sectioned seedpods and the three blooming characteristics – nodding, drooping or upright.  For me, the trillium has been one of my favourite flowers since I was a small child and I combed the forest in the Rainy River District hoping to find the provincial symbol, the white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) growing somewhere. To this day I haven’t come across the white trillium naturally growing in the woods, much north of Bemidji, Minnesota so when I come across someone that has them growing successfully growing in their garden, in northwestern Ontario, I am “green with envy”.

Although the white trillium is not native to the Rainy River District it can be grown in the right conditions in the garden. The native trillium species is the nodding trillium and can be found growing in the forests in the Lake of the Woods and Rainy River watersheds. It is always exciting, when you are walking in the forest and come across the nodding trillium and many of the wild orchid species that do grow in the District. Their season is short so to see one in bloom you have to time it just right.

Never, ever dig trilliums or lady slippers from the bush always purchase from a reputable nursery or plant supplier. It is also okay to try growing trilliums from seed but beware it may take up to five years before they bloom. Well worth the wait in my opinion. Like many woodland species the growing conditions are the same. They prefer a very moist, but slightly acidic and fertile soil in the shade. Make sure to add organic material to the soil around the plant on a regular basis and mulch to retain moisture and supplement with water if the season is really dry. My flowerbed is mulched to retain the moisture but I have planted them in the shade garden that faces north and very close to the house so I do not mulch the plants over the winter. A layer of leaves over the plant, in a more exposed location, is very helpful to ensure winter protection. Once established, trilliums are maintenance free and are there for your enjoyment but sometimes the deer get a bit too close and give them a snip.

I highly recommend adding at least one of the trillium species to your garden. I am forever on the hunt for more plants to add to my collection of three: the white, yellow and red nodding trilliums.

White trillium (T. grandiflorum) – This type has nodding white flowers that age into bright pink blooms atop wavy, dark green leaves.

Toadshade trillium (T. sessile) – This species exhibits red or purplish upright flowers surrounded by maroon and green mottled leaves.

Yellow trillium (T. luteum) – This variety displays upright gold or bronze-green flowers on variegated green leaves and emits a sweet citrus-like scent.

Purple or red trillium (T. erectum) – Also known as stinking Benjamin, this one has attractive, nearly purple flowers that smell of rotting meat.

Of the three plant species covered in this two-part column, the trillium species are probably the most readily available and economically attainable for your garden. I strongly encourage you to give them a try. Trilliums are one of the first flowers in the shade garden, once the snow recedes, and I know they make me smile every spring when I see them emerge from the soil and start to bloom.