Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum)

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Every year, I look forward to the spring ephemerals. Not only are many of them beautiful, but their resilience after the long winter is admirable. Trout lilies are one of my favourites. These fascinating plants have mutualistic relationships with ants, help in nutrient cycling, and can produce different pollen colours.

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)


Trout lilies are native to eastern Canada and northeastern United States. They crop up in early spring, around April and May, after the snow melt, but before the deciduous trees leaf out.

Trout lily leaves are waxy and green with brownish-purple patches. Their common name comes from these speckled leaves which are reminiscent of the brown trout or brook trout.

You’ll find these plants growing in large colonies, forming a dense carpet on the forest floor. Young plants have one leaf and older plants have two. On average, it takes seven years for a trout lily to produce a flower!1 The flowers are yellow and droop downwards. They are also “perfect flowers,” meaning they have both male and female structures (stamens and carpels).

For a full description of these plants check out the trout lily project.

Ant Allies

One of the coolest things about trout lilies are their mutually beneficial relationship with ants. These plants produce seeds with food parts called elaiosomes. Elaiosomes are fleshy, calorie and nutrient dense structures attached to seeds. Worker ants seek out these seeds to bring back to their colony. After feasting on the elaiosomes, the ants throw out the remaining seed and it is able to germinate.

It’s a win-win situation. The plants have their seeds spread and the ants get nutritious food. Plants with mutualistic relationships with ants are called myrmecochory plants.

Infographic about trout lily. It states 5 facts about trout lilies:

1. Trout lilies retain nitrogen and potassium that are later released through decomposition.

2. Trout lilies are native to eastern Canada and notheastern United States.

3. Trout lilies aer myrmecochory plants: they have  mutualistic relationship with ants.

4. Trout lilies can have red or yellow pollen. Scientists are still trying to understand this variation.

5. Trout lilies bloom in early spring after the snow melt and before the deciduous trees leaf out.

Nutrient Cycling

Another cool thing about these plants is their role in nutrient cycling. In 1978, Muller and Bormann demonstrated that trout lilies retain “significant amounts of potassium and nitrogen.”2 They hypothesized that, were it not for trout lilies these nutrients would wash away during spring flooding. While more evidence is needed to prove their hypothesis, one thing is clear, trout lilies store important nutrients and these nutrients are later released back into the environment through decomposition.

Wildlife Interactions

Trout lilies are a food source for some wildlife. Deer graze on the plant, black bear eat plant corms (underground stems), and chipmunks in the Adirondacks depend on their nutrients.3 Tessier showed that plants with shallow corms are more at risk of herbivory than those with deep corms.4

Trout lily leaves are waxy and green. They have brownish-purple splotches.

Pollen Color Polymorphism

Trout lilies produce both red and yellow pollen. A colony can have both colours or be all the same colour.5 Recently, scientists set out to understand why these differences were occurring. Using citizen science, they enlisted the help of community members to record populations across North America.

Going into the project, they had several theories about why variation was happening. Perhaps, pollen colour offered some protected against UV-B radiation or protection from the pollen-feeding beetle Asclera ruficollis. Maybe there was a noticeable geographic distribution of pollen colours. Or, could it be that pollen colour affected reproductive success? All of these hypotheses proved false.6

They concluded that some pollinators “exhibited site‐specific pollen‐colour preferences” and that “they may act as agents of selection on this trait” and “contribute to the maintenance of variation.”7

Other posts you may enjoy

Mayflower (Epigaea repens)

Identifying Clover (Trifolium Spp.)

Acadian Forest: History, Species, and Biodiversity


1 Sarah Coulber. “Trout Lily.” Canadian Wildlife Federation.

2 Robert Muller and Herbert Bormann. 1976. “Role of Erythronium americanum Ker. in Energy Flow and Nutrient Dynamics of a Northern Hardwood Forest Ecosystem.” American Association for the Advancement of Science.

3 Wildflowers of the Adirondacks: Trout lily (Erythronium americanum).” Adirondacks Forever Wild.

4 Jack Tessier. 2020. “Shallow Corms of Erythronium americanum (Trout Lily) Die from Herbivory in the Summer and Freezing in the Winter.” Northeastern Naturalist.

5 Emily Austen, Shang-Yao Lin, Jessica Forrest. 2018. “On the ecological significance of pollen color: a case study in American trout lily (Erythronium americanum).” Ecological Studies of America.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

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4 comments on “Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum)

  1. Hello I bumped into your article on the trout lily and I enjoyed it. I looked forward to walking the ravines near my home in the Soo in the spring to photograph the colony’s of the gorgeous trout lily flower. I dreaded stepping on them as I carefully photographed them. I had read that the adders tongue also provided nitrogen to the hardwood tree they grew under after they died off and the hardwoods began to bud. I have a photo I affectionately call Adders Tongue ballet that I’d be happy to share with you but this email doesn’t allow it. I also call the Trout Lily the upside down flower.

    • Hi! I’m glad you enjoyed the article, thanks so much for commenting! I didn’t know that about the nitrogen fixing so you taught me something new 🙂 I’m glad you were able to get some beautiful photos.


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