How to grow trilliums

Val Bourne / 10 March 2014

Trilliums are spring-flowering woodlanders mainly from America, with some found in Asia. They are often called 'triplet lilies' because they have all their plant parts in threes.



Many gardeners have failed to grow trilliums in the past because thirty or so years ago the only supply came from wild-collected roots that had dried out in transit. It was impossible to grow these plants then: they simply never got going.

However twenty years ago nurserymen began to grow pot-grown specimens raised from seeds and it became possible to buy a healthy trillium that would do well in the garden.

Where to plant

Most trilliums appear in woodland as the the winter snows melt so it’s important to find them a sheltered shady position in good soil. Some have bright flowers supported by mottled foliage. Others are green-leaved with white flowers.

How to plant

Trilliums set seeds when fully happy and these can be collected and sown straight away. They need stratification, a period of cold, and generally germinate very early in the spring. These can be potted up singly in their first or second year. Double-flowered trilliums do not set seeds, so these have to be divided and this makes them very expensive.

Growing trilliums from seed is a slow and tricky process, because in the first year the seeds develop one long leaf, looking very grass-like in form. They are vulnerable to slugs at this stage - as I know to my cost!

In their second year they develop three leaves, but will not flower for three more years. This makes trilliums expensive to buy. However, once established and happy, they are long-lived.

Find the right position, in shade in fertile soil. Plant in flower and keep your plants watered in their first growing season. The trick is to keep trilliums in leaf until autumn, so that the foliage can restore the rhizomatous roots.

They all grow from rhizomes which develop just below the soil surface. The new shoots appear in early spring and die down again from mid to late summer. If plants are moved and planted when they have plump rhizomes and fresh roots that haven’t been allowed to dry out, they will establish quickly. Soil with organic plant food will assist their growth – they respond well to good feeding.

Grow with...

Trilliums do well with other non-invasive woodlanders. These might include choice erythroniums, ferns, hellebores and wood anemones.

Good varieties

Trillium albiflorum
This trillium, from California, has fragrant white flowers and large green leaves often mottled in maroon.

Trillium cuneatum
A maroon-flowered trillium with purplish blotches and spots on a green background. This is found in the Eastern states of the USA where it flourishes in large numbers. Appears above ground in March, flowering in March/April. Height up to 30cm.

Trillium grandiflorum
Probably the easiest trillium, with pure-white flowers and green leaves on a foot-high plant. This will do well given light shade and good soil with reasonable drainage. It’s from the woodlands of Eastern North America and flowers in late-April and early May here. There is a lovely double form usually called ‘Flore Pleno’.

Trillium kurabayashii (syn T. sessile)
The stemless maroon flowers sit straight on top of a bed of mottled foliage . This is a Californian species despite its oriental-sounding name.

Trillium luteum
Green leaves mottled in silver below stalkless yellow flowers that deepen with age. Hugh Nunn finds the flowers last much longer than any other trillium he grows from April through to June.

Where to buy

Look out for Harvington Trilliums, developed by Hugh Nunn, his wholesale nursery (www.hughnunn.co.uk) will give you suppliers. His daughter, Penny, runs a nursery called Twelve Nunns that sends out trillium roots in summer (and other choice woodlanders throughout the year) that will grow.

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