Sunday, April 29, 2012

The original Stinking Benjamin

My appologies! For the last 4 days I've been at two different conferences, and so have been a wee busy. More regular blog postings are starting again tomorrow!

Species name: Trillium erectum

Common name: red trillium, wake-robin, stinking Benjamin

Location: Nova Scotia

I took this photo while out with Tanya on a guided excursion of an area in Nova Scotia called Cape Split. Felt like a walk up a mountain carrying the pack mule with all of its stuff, to be rewarded with a beautiful view of the Bay of Fundy. Once we were done absorbing the view we started our (incredibly short) trek back down the "mountain", only to find out that the walk wasn't all that long at all! The red trillium is native to Eastern North America, especially the Maritime provinces.

Most of the 40-50 species in the Trillium genus are at risk of population decline across their entire range. Despite this, there is only one species that is protected by law in Ontario against picking since it is officially a threatened species and has a greatly reduced population size. The common white trillium, the provincial flower of Ontario, is only prohibited from being picked in Provincial and National Parks, and on land owned and controlled by a Conservation Authority. In the United States, it is illegal to pick trillium flowers in Michigan, Minnesota and New York. This isn't because it's a threatened species, it's because picking the flower prevents the bracts and leaves from making sugars to be stored for the next year's growth. This impedes the growth and reproductive abilities pretty severely of the trillium. The white trillium is also the state flower of Ohio, and the official government emblem of the Ontario Government. Like the Jack in the Pulpit plant, the trillium is characterized by having flower parts and leaves in multiples of three: three petals, three sepals, and three leaves. This makes the plant trifolate, and a monocot.

Red trillium flowers are definitely not suitable for picking for the dinner table. A dark red-purple colour in flowers often indicates that they will smell terrible, like rotting meat. This implies the flowers are pollinated by animals attracted to rotting meat, usually flies. Like another native Ontario wildflower, bloodroot, the seeds of the red trillium are dispersed via ants (called myrmecochory). The ants are attracted to the fruit of the flower because of the fleshy elaiosome that surrounds the seed. This elaiosome contains lots of lipids (fats) and proteins, which the ants use as a rich source of nutrition. Once the ants have consumed the elaiosome, they transport the seeds into their disposal chambers underground where they can germinate the next spring and grow into a new trillium plant. Despite this complex association between trilliums and ants, these plants rarely actually reproduce sexually via their seeds. Like many of the spring wildflowers that I've blogged about so far, trilliums have rhizomes that store nutrients for the plants to use to grow the next spring.

To my knowledge, there is no medicinal or nutritive benefits (either perceived or actual) of consuming specifically the red trillium (although, there are stories about other species of trillium having medicinal value in preventing and treating bloody diarrhea). It contains calcium oxalate crystals in a special form called a raphide, which would make the plant toxic to consume by humans. The crystals can perforate the intestines and cause ulcers. Plus, I don't imagine they taste very good!