Trout of the Forest

Did you know that not all trout live in the water? Yes, some actually live in the woods on the forest floor. How does a fish live out of water, you ask? Whereas there are some fish that do have that capability, I’m not talking about a fish, I’m talking about a flower: the trout lily.

In woodlands across the Finger Lakes and the Eastern United States, the delicate trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) poke their way out of the rich forest humus from March through May before the trees leaf-out completely and block the sunlight from falling down to the ground. While it has a few other common names, such as dogtooth violet and yellow adder’s tongue, the plant is most commonly referred to as yellow trout lily due to its green-gray leaves with purple or brown speckles, which are reminiscent of the coloring of brook trout.

Trout lilies are characterized by their one yellow flower that nods off a leaf-less stalk borne out of a pair of mottled leaves. Single leaves may dot the ground as well, being plants that have not reached full maturity yet. The flowers are diurnal and close during the night before re-opening in the morning. On a bright day, the petals may curl all the way back to the stem to show off the full glory of this little forest flower. In size, the trout lily only grows to be between 6-10 inches tall.

Contrary to how the alternative names of the trout lily may lead one to think, the plant is neither a violet nor a fern, but is indeed a member of the lily family and grows from a corm, which is similar to a bulb. Their main method of pollination is via ants, though sexual reproduction is reported to only be successful in about ten percent of pollinating flowers. To combat this, the trout lily also employs asexual reproduction by producing clones called droppers, which grow on a stem that shoots off the parent corm. Once the dropper has set its root, the stem connecting it to its parent withers and dies. Colonies of trout lilies are easy to find because of this method of reproduction.

As far as flowering plants go, the trout lily is very long lived. Colonies can live to be 300 years! Also, an individual plant does not reach sexual maturity, when it will produce a flower and go to seed, until its seventh year. Even with their slow rate of maturity, the trout lily is not in danger of becoming a threatened species, but rather is considered common across its range.

So, you don’t need to go to the redwood forest or visit the Galapagos’ tortoises to be in the presence of a something with a lot of history. Merely trot out to the woods in Upstate New York and observe the delicate trout of the forest. But you’d better hurry, because just like the trout tentatively on the end of a fishing line, spring doesn’t last very long.


Story and photo by Gabrielle L. Wheeler