Trout lilies begin to bloom in Michigan’s deciduous forests soon after the last snow melts and the sun begins to warm the soil. These lilies prefer dappled spring sunlight in moist, rich loamy soil with leaf litter and decaying organic matter.
Trout lilies come up as either a single or a double leaf. Only the double-leaved plants flower. The leaves are a mottled, dark olive green to brown, which look similar to the markings of a brook trout. Hence the common name, “trout lily.” The flowers appear soon afterwards, and the nodding yellow blossoms curl back to show off chestnut brown stamens. The seeds form in June.
Trout lilies propagate in two ways. When a seed germinates, it forms a tiny bud-like underground food storage structure called a “corm.” In a year or two, the corm produces several thread-like structures called “stolons,” which burrow out into the surrounding soil. At the end of each stolon is a bud called a “dropper,” which produces a new corm from food sent down the line by the parent plant. Eventually the stolon withers away, and the offspring corm sends up a leaf, which makes food to develop a new corm, which in turn sends droppers down even farther the next year. Over time, this propagation method can form enormous colonies of trout lilies, which if left undisturbed, may live for centuries.
Trout lily seeds are also dispersed by ants. Attached to the seeds are small fleshy structures called elaiosomes. The ants drag the seeds to their nests, feed the elaiosomes to their larvae, and then take the seeds themselves to their waste disposal areas, where the seeds germinate and grow.
Another insect which has a special relationship with the trout lily is the bumblebee. A queen bumblebee emerges from hibernation earlier than most pollinators when there are not many flowers in bloom. She needs to collect enough pollen to feed baby bumblebees and sip enough nectar to give her energy to forage. Trout lilies provide large quantities of nectar for bumblebees.
Trout Lilies are a lovey favorite of mine and not because of their interesting methods of reproduction or even their bright yellow flowers. My fascination with them lies with the leaves. A lovely green leaf is dappled in a purplish color reminiscent of the shadows that dapple the forest floor in early spring. I've worked to paint these flowers multiple times and only accomplished impressionistic renditions. I'm going to keep working on them though, I'll get it!