The Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is a diminutive spring ephemeral in the Lily family. Trout Lilies have a very poor sexual reproduction rate —only about 10% of flowers produce seed—and so they spread mostly by corms, developing a dropper, or fleshy stem, that stretches deep into the soil away from the parent before growing its own corm at the end of the stem. Once this happens, the dropper connecting the parent and daughter plant dies off. Colonies of trout lilies have plants of varying ages, and in undisturbed forests some colonies are reputed to be over 300 years old!
For the first seven years of its life the plant will have only one leaf. Once the corm has reached a sufficient depth of 10 to 20 centimeters, the plant will begin producing two leaves and a single nodding flower. The flower has three yellow petals and three petal-like sepals, which curl upward. The seeds of trout lilies have elaiosomes—extra organs around the seed that are rich in lipids, amino acids, and other nutrients. The elaiosomes attract ants, who carry the seeds to their nests and feed the elaiosomes to their larvae. The seeds are discarded from the nest are placed in fertile middens. Seed collection by humans is difficult for plants that use myrmecochory, or seed dispersal by ants, because the ants gather the seeds precisely when they are ripe.
These trout lilies grow along Brown’s Creek in the Black Mountains of Western North Carolina, conveniently by my creekside studio. They grow from a soil covered in thick sycamore leaves from the previous Autumn. The colony of trout lilies embraces the footprint of my one hundred year old building and runs down the banks of the creek. In the warming March air I laid on my belly to sketch them and wondered how old these tiny marvels might actually be.