The Realm of the Giant Trillium

3-1-10 Giant Trillium on the Redwood Creek Trail near Muir Woods

On Monday, another MRI in San Francisco. On the way back to Marin we drove up (and up) Highway One to Diaz Ridge in GGNRA, hiked out the ridge to vast views of Tam and the Pacific, then down the Miwok Trail to Redwood Creek in Frank’s Valley, where it began to rain.  We stuck out our thumb(s), and the first of not-so-very-many cars stopped and offered a ride all the way back to our vehicle. The driver was a beautiful German woman with her young son, here on a visit from Anchorage. They had just come from a hike with friends in Muir Woods and were, alas, on their way to SFO to return to the snow.

My son and I are preparing for a backcountry trip (no flowerblogging posts for about 8 days), so this will be a brief entry, except for talking about Trilliums.

Marin’s Giant Trillium, Trillium chloropetalum — Marin’s because it was first described scientifically on an early collecting expedition here in the county — is a botanical spectacular: huge, beautiful, and absolutely reeking of facinating biology.

If you chose anything in the Universe to represent “three,” it would probably be trilliums. Their broad platform of exactly three leaves is surmounted by a flower with three of every part.

Trilliums are prized garden plants, but are slow-growing and difficult to propagate, so the vast majority of them in commerce have been collected, legally or more often illegally, from the wild, wiping out or endangering whole populations.

Here in Marin, we have three trilliums: our Giant; the smaller, delicate Wake-Robin; and a third rarish form in the coast grasslands at Point Reyes that may or may not be distinct from the Giant Trillium.

Smell the Giant. Very few of the 40 or 50 trillium species have a scent, but this one will tickle your schnozz with a spicy old-rose fragrance.

Its flowers, even within one stand, can be the red of old blood, clear pink, parfait green, pale yellow or white. No one I’ve ever talked to seems to know why this variability exists.

We don’t know much about trillium pollination — bumblebees may carry a lot of the freight — but we know tons about seed dispersal. The trillium’s three-parted fruit decays in place. Ants shred them and dissect out the seeds. Attached to the seeds are fatty bodies called elaiosomes, created especially to induce ants to harvest. Dragged back to the ant colony, the elaiosomes are stripped off and eaten, and the seeds discarded in the ants’ garbage pile. Sneaky sleeping trillium babies, they benefit from (a) being safely buried; and (b) the rich nutrients of the garbage pile. They may take several leisurely years to break dormancy and germinate. Other seed dispersers we know about are deer (better than ants at moving the seed over distance) and yellow jackets.

3-1-10 Wild Ginger on the Redwood Creek Trail

More fat bodies! Another victim of the American obesity epidemic? A moist-forest plant like  trillium, Wild Ginger uses elaiosomes to get ants to disperse its seed.

This flower belongs, like the pipevine we found two weeks ago, to the mostly tropical, mostly elaborate-flowered Birthwort family.

The leaves and roots of Wild Ginger have a distinct ginger taste, though of course authentic ginger is a tropical orchid. Wild Ginger contains a compound that is, at least for rodents, a potent carcinogen, so it’s probably not a good idea to eat.

Wild Ginger spreads vegetatively with its stem-like rhizomes. Its pollination is something of a puzzle; we think mostly it’s self-pollinated, but is occasionally aided by crawling forest-floor insects.

3-1-10 The lower Miwok Trail in Franks Valley has masses of our lovely native lily, Twisted Stalk, just coming into bloom

3-1-10 Up on Diaz Ridge, Service Berry is just coming into bloom too, head and shoulders above the chaparral

3-1-10 A close-up of another ridge flower, Pearly Everlasting, with its countless shining white bracts embracing each little bundle of flowers

3-1-10 Just because I haven't posted iris lately: a lovely white Douglas Iris in Franks Valley, nestled against the Muir Woods boundary



  1. nadi said,

    March 4, 2010 at 12:41 am

    hi bill,

    i was your very first car on monday, so mighty pleased to have given u a lift because u gave me flowers in abundance in return. love your fotos, a very much missed sight up here in march in alaska indeed.

    warmest greetings to your wife and you.


    • billnoble said,

      March 4, 2010 at 6:16 am

      Nadi — The delight was at least equally shared. Not only did you make a near-perfect hike for Tina and myself more perfect (you and your beautiful son and the rain showed exquisite timing), but your kindness and grace were the brightest gifts of our day. Tina, as you might have gathered from the blog, is in the late mid-stages of Alzheimer’s and often beset right now with severe anxieties. She was quite fearful about the idea of hitchhiking. Your smile was the antidote. Many, many thanks!

      I just posted some of our pictures from that day. I’m sure you’ll recognize some of the flowers you and your friends saw in Muir Woods.

  2. nadi said,

    March 4, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    hi again bill, yes, i gathered tinas anxiety, and guessed on your partners condition, i have two years of nursing training in my past. glad to have taken some of the fear away! i have a question for you please – would you mind if i share your blog link on my facebook page with my friends? quite some of them are stuck in the snow somewhere and would love to see your photos i bet. they are so wonderful. what a gift flowers are, how not to love them. nadi

    • billnoble said,

      March 4, 2010 at 2:07 pm

      And hi again to you. 🙂 I’d love to have the blog shared as widely as possible (encourage friends to imitate you and post comments,and if they like what they see, to link!), so yes, please do. And I’m also wide open to proposals for guest posts on the blog. I intend to grow this steadily into a community.

      A hug is on its way to Anchorage.

  3. shivta said,

    July 16, 2010 at 12:05 am

    just liked all your pictures. It was as coming along on your trip.

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