Thursday, April 7, 2011


A speckling of white trout-lilies, Erythronium albidum, brighten the otherwise drab brown leaf litter of an early April southern Ohio forest. On a recent botanical foray into the depths of Adams County, our group saw lots of these tough little plants. Crowd reaction? Universally favorable. I noticed that people were far more smitten with these charming little lilies than they were with the weedy little Sibara virginica mustard that I showed them (in this post), even though the mustard is rarer and more interesting on a number of levels.

Ah, well, the mustard can't hold a candle to the lily in the looks department and that's why they garner the lion's share of digital pixels. There are several names by which one can refer to a "trout-lily". I use the fishy moniker because I like its sound. That name stems from the fact that the plant blooms about the same time that trout run in streams, to believe one story. Another has it that native Americans would chew the root, spit the masticated remnants into the water, and fish would be stimulated to bite. Yet another possible origin for trout-lily is that the mottling on the leaves suggests the vermiculated blotching on the sides of a trout. If you want other naming options, consider calling the plant adder's-tongue, fawn-lily, or dog's-tooth violet. No matter what you call them, or how deep your level of interest in botany, trout-lilies look good and hold the eye. They arise from deep-seated bulbs, from which vegetative offshoots radiate. This method of spreading creates often sizeable colonies with many young, flowerless plants.

A primary target of last Saturday's expedition was the very rare goldenstar, Erythronium rostratum. This species has a scattered and often disjunct southern distribution, with the Ohio populations being at the northern terminus of its range.

The legendary botanist Emma Lucy Braun discovered goldenstar in rich woods along tiny Rocky Fork Creek in Scioto County in 1963, and there it still thrives. People have looked and looked for other populations, but it wasn't until this year that Rich McCarty located a new site in Adams County, some miles to the west of Rocky Fork. Andrew Gibson documented this find on his blog, HERE.

We visited the goldenstar population on a strongly overcast day, thus the flowers were only partially open. When fully stimulated by solar rays, the tepals spread broadly outwards on a flat plane, and do resemble spectacular little stars. This species is truly one of our most stunning wildflowers.

I once wrote a brief article on goldenstar for the Columbus Dispatch, HERE, and was promptly inundated with dozens of reports of "goldenstars". Alas, well-intentioned as these reporters were, it was the above species that they were seeing - the yellow trout-lily, Erythronium americanum, which is common throughout Ohio.

But not all is as it may seem, and there are yellow trout-lily look-alikes other than the goldenstar. One of the ways in which adept field botanists discover new state records is by being keenly aware of species that occur in adjacent states, and closely resemble other commonly occurring plants.

Photo: Alan Kressler/Flickr

The beauty above is the somewhat cutesily named "dimpled trout-lily", Erythronium umbilicatum. Looks an awful lot like our abundant and widespread yellow trout-lily. In 1950, uber-botanist Merritt Lyndon Fernald published the 8th edition of Gray's Manual of Botany, in which he recognized three species of trout-lilies in eastern North America. This one was not one of them. However, under the common E. americanum, he noted "Highly variable, needing more study".

How prophetic he was. Thirteen years after the publication of Fernald's 8th edition - ironically, the same year that Braun discovered goldenstar in Ohio - Erythronium umbilicatum was described to science. It was long overlooked - dismissed as a variation of a common species. The differences are subtle, and looking at the fruit may be the easiest way to cinch the identification. HERE is a key to separating dimpled trout-lily from its sister species.

The Kentucky distribution of dimpled trout-lily. Might look like a bit of stretch to think it's in Ohio, but we've got other southern plants with this sort of patchy Kentucky distribution.

The West Virginia map for dimpled trout-lily, which offers more hope that this cool little lily might actually lurk in our Ohio woods, overlooked and undiscovered. The tier of southeastern Ohio River counties would be the place to look, and this region is poorly botanized.

Dimpled trout-lily would certainly make for an exciting new addition to Ohio's flora.


A.L. Gibson said...

I love the Trout-lilies too, Jim. Even though they are fairly common and I see them just about every time I go out botanizing in the Spring it just never gets old to snap a few pictures and appreciate their simple beauty. Did you and the group visit the population at Rocky Fork or the new population on the Edge? Thanks for the blog mention by the way! :)

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Andrew,

We went to the Rocky Fork site; one of them, anyway. Haven't yet seen the new population.


Kelly said...

...I love that artsy, raindrop shot of the White Trout-Lily! :-)

I think I was spoiled on your tour by being able to add the rare Goldenstars to my list before the Yellow Trout-lillies (which I just saw today on the Little Miami).

Beyond My Garden said...

I have bunches of the leaves coming up in my fern garden which was part of the woods not too long ago. I I don't understand why there have never been flowers.

Beyond My Garden said...

I've re-read your blog and I guess mine is an immature colony.

Heather said...

Those lilies sure are lookers, there's no doubt about that. I really enjoyed my trip to Adams County, and I appreciate that there is a special amount of biodiversity going on there, but you mention how some of the other Ohio river counties are under-botanized (and probably under-birded and otherwise understudied). Do you have any thoughts on how we can change that? I'm thinking Meigs, Gallia, Lawrence...

B said...

Do you have closeups of the stigmas of the 3 yellow species? It's an interesting difference on americanum and albidum and wondered if the otherwise similar americanum and umbilatum differed in that aspect.