We are so excited to share this post from our upcoming Free Herbalism Project speaker Susan Leopold, PhD.! Susan is an ethnobotanist and passionate defender of biodiversity. Over the past 20 years, Susan has worked extensively with indigenous peoples in Peru and Costa Rica. She is the Executive Director of United Plant Savers and Director of the Sacred Seeds Project. Prior to working at United Plant Savers, she worked as a librarian at the Oak Spring Garden Library, specializing in digitizing rare herbals and botanical travel manuscripts. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for Botanical Dimensions and the Center for Sustainable Economy. She is an advisory board member of American Botanical Council. She is a proud member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia and the author of the children’s book Isabella’s Peppermint Flower, teaching about Virginia’s botanical history. She lives on and manages a productive farm, the Indian Pipe Botanical Sanctuary with her three children in Virginia, where she raises goats, peacocks, and herbs. She is an avid recreational tree climber, in love with the canopy just as much as the herbs of the forest floor.
Trillium Conservation Insight and Overview
The adoption of trillium by Mountain Rose Herbs is wonderfully symbolic of the powerful triad found in the leaves, petals, and sepals of the wildflower loved by so many. On a personal level, the trillium links the passion for conservation of yet another trio that deeply touches my life: Mountain Rose Herbs, United Plant Savers, and Rosemary Gladstar. Rosemary founded the first incarnation of Mountain Rose with a mail order catalogue called Rosemary’s Garden, and she is also the inspirational force behind United Plant Savers. As a guiding light of herbalism, she reminds us all to think of how we can return the favor to help the plants that endlessly help us.
Trillium, most commonly known as bethroot, has a long record of historical use. Trillium erectum has dark red flowers (sometimes also white) and a unique smell that attracts carrion flies as its pollinator. There is also rich folklore as a love potion, which makes sense for the passion it elicits in plant lovers. Wake-robin and whip-poor-will flower are also wonderful common names that came about because the trillium blooms with the return of the birds and the peak time for the sound of the whip-poor-will call into the dusk. Trilliums are an essential and iconic spring ephemeral.
When I first moved to my farm 17 years ago, I researched what endangered plants were near me, since I was interning at the Virginia Department of Natural Heritage. I learned that there was a documented population of Trillium cernuum, listed as "imperiled" in the state of Virginia, and I was eager to find it and protect it. (Imperiled= At high risk of extirpation from the state due to very restricted range, very few populations, often 20 or fewer, steep declines, or other factors.)
We take for granted the early plant explorers that documented medicinal plant uses and natural history knowledge through their connections with native people. It is this knowledge that would inform the eclectic herbalism movement based on the rich native medicinal species found so abundantly during the 1700s and into the 1800s. The flora of the Appalachian region was noted back then and confirmed today as a biodiversity hot spot. It is the most diverse temperate region found on the planet and uniquely rich in medicinal plants. Georgia is the most blessed state with 22 species of trillium. Trillium represents that diversity as you dig into how the genus is expressed in its various forms, and this plant teaches us about endemic populations and awareness for critical conservation.
As the South has an abundant diversity of these small endemic populations, the northeastern region has fewer populations with much larger distribution, such as the T. grandiflorum. I know this species well. Just a few miles from my farm is the G.R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area. This is the largest and densest population found in the United States. It is the premier wildflower destination for native plant enthusiasts who travel to see the spring display that has been estimated to have 18 million individual trilliums within two square miles along the famed trillium trail, which has been adopted by the Virginia Native Plant Society.
Constant development is taking place near this preserve, and I have organized several plant rescues of trillium, cohosh, bloodroot, yellow lady’s slipper, wild ginger, wild yam, and other natives that I bring back to my farm and plant. Each time I see the orange marking tape, I am deeply saddened that there is little to no process for ecological assessments when developments are considered and that the value of these sensitive, disappearing native plants is often overlooked. This is compounded by the fact that states have few resources to fund botanical fieldwork to even accurately document or monitor plant species. Each state does have a Department of Natural Heritage, which collectively share data with Nature Serve, a national database for biodiversity and endangered species. You can search the Nature Serve website by species to see a plant’s conservation status at the state and global level.
"Can you imagine what 10 pounds from this wild population must look like when harvested? That would be nearly 500 wild trillium plants being sold for $40.00."
A Deep Disconnect
I see a deep disconnect on so many levels when it comes to plant conservation of native medicinal plants from Appalachia, and trillium particularly. I have painstakingly dug trillium’s small rhizomes/bulbs. It takes time and care as they are often the size of a gumball and could be older than me. In Appalachia, root buyers currently pay .60 cents a pound for fresh root and $4.00 a pound for dry bulbs cut down the middle. Who would dig these precious bulbs for so little? It must take around 50-75 bulbs to make a pound. Can you imagine what 10 pounds from this wild population must look like? That would be nearly 500 wild trillium plants being sold for $40.00. In comparison, there are also growers in the native plant community propagating these plants via seeds and selling them for around $5 or more per individual plant. This is the paradox: wild plants harvested for medicinal markets have little to no value, but in the native plant nursery trade for the home gardener, they do.
It can be very difficult to determine if the trillium plants you’re purchasing were grown from seeds or harvested from the wild and repotted. Needless to say, these two niches operate in completely different paradigms within the same region. I want to make the point that the southern Appalachia region is where these trillium plants are still being dug for the medicinal plant trade, and this is also where you find species that are the most vulnerable. Our duty is to ensure the perpetuation of these plants in the wild by minimizing collection from the wild. Propagation via seed is making plants available, but the price points make it difficult to compete with wild collected plants that sell for so little. Though wild-harvesting is an issue, sadly it is drastically compounded by the loss of habitat to development and resource extraction that is devouring the land critical to native plants, and in the case of trillium, the over-population of deer also deeply impacts the plant’s populations. The threats are coming from all angles.
How to Become a Plant Saver!
What can we do? Trillium should not be used in the commercial medicinal plant trade. For this reason, Mountain Rose Herb does not sell trillium and has partnered with United Plant Savers through our Adopt an “At-Risk” Plant Program. The financial support from Mountain Rose Herbs helps UpS continue our outreach and educational efforts. I also encourage you to become a member of United Plant Savers. We are a membership organization, and it is our membership fees that keep the organization thriving. Plant conservation is extremely challenging to fund, and without our members, UpS would not exist. BECOME A MEMBER!
If you have land and want to grow trillium, learn about your regional diversity and buy from a reputable native plant nursery that sells propagated plants. United Plant Savers has a Botanical Sanctuary Network that anyone who is passionate about native medicinal plant conservation can join. You can go online to our interactive map to read about sanctuaries in your region. One such sanctuary is the Trillium Center in Ohio. I have watched this sanctuary grow in its mission over the years. I love their logo as it shows the ant dispersing the trillium seeds, which have an alisome (a small fatty food that the ants love to eat).
Just imagine a fly or a bee pollinating the trillium flower, a single ant carrying the seed just a few feet away, that seed germinating over the next two years, and then another seven years until it finally flowers. This flower eventually creates a trillium population over the next 100 years, and that population becomes its own variation after 1,000 years, leading to a region where you can now find over 40 different species going back in time 11,000 years when parts of the region were covered in advancing glaciers and species were forced into refuge, creating pockets of unique diversity today. Meditating on the thousands of years of ecological interactions that create the composition of native plant communities places our role in this moment in time as vitally important. Right now we are holding the future of these fragile plants in our hands and, as Rosemary reminds us, they are asking for our help. They are asking for us to give back, and we need to be a collective voice for the love potion. So aptly named bethroot, its medicine for me is now a deep metaphor for birthing a movement of plant conservation. As herbalists, we need to be healing the earth as we heal others and ourselves.
Alan Weakly is the Director of the UNC Herbarium. He prepared a lecture for the Mt. Cuba Symposium entitled Ecology and Biogeography of Trillium in Eastern North America: Where are the Trillium and Why are they there? It provides an excellent overview and is available online.
Trillium Conservation and Gardens:
The Huntsville Botanical Garden has 28 Eastern US Species and over 200 selected forms and cultivars displayed throughout the garden. The American Public Gardens Plant Collections Network officially recognizes the collection. This collection was started by Harold Holmes and dedicated to his efforts. http://publicgardens.org/news/article/huntsville-botanical-garden-joins-plant-collections-network
Mount Cuba, located in Delaware, is a public garden and research center for native plants. They have a trillium trail with a diverse collection and conduct research on propagation, seed dispersal, and ecological relationships of native plant communities. A book is available online that covers the trillium collection and research. http://www.mtcubacenter.org
Cottage Lake Gardens in Washington State is a repository of trillium diversity, as they have 48 species, nearly every species found in North America. This is the passion of one dynamic couple’s vision, Kevin and Susie Egan. You can visit the gardens or stay at their B&B that they operate. http://cottagelakegardens.com/thegarden.aspx
Trillium cernuum taken by Susan Leopold
Susan in her trillium tree house…
List of endangered Trillium taken from the article “Obsession and Exploitation a Cultural History by C.Colston Burrell.”
American Trillium Species Listed as Endangered, Threatened or Vulnerable
Trillium discolor-North Carolina
Trillium lancifolium-Florida, Tennessee
*Trillium reliquum - US, Georgia endangered species list
Trillium sessile-Michigan, New York
Trillium viride-Illinois, Michigan
Trillium cernuum-Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Virginia
Trillium erectum-Illinois, New York, Rhode Island
Trillium flexipes-Maryland, New York
Trillium grandiflorum-Maine, New York
Trillium nivale-Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin
*Trillium persistens - US, Georgia Endangered species list
Trillium pusillum-Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee
Trillium rugelii -Tennessee
Trillium undulatum-Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Ohio
Trillium persistens and T. reliquum
* Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This is the most critical designation, meaning the plant is in danger of extinction.