by Abraham Navarro
Wandering through the underbrush in the Arcata Community Forest as the daylight slips away, some of the last plants you can make out against the blur of darkening foliage are the pale white faces of Pacific trillium (Trillium Ovatum) looking back at you.
A hallmark of spring in the redwoods, these small white flowers dot the alien ferns in the community forest along trails and sometimes even right in the middle of them.
Trilliums are easy to identify. Their name comes from the latin word tres meaning three, referring to the symmetrical three sets of leaves, petals and sepals that can be found on all 43 species of trillium, 38 of which can be found in North America.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, several species of trillium contain chemical compounds called sapogenins that have been used medicinally through the ages as astringents, coagulants, expectorants, and uterine stimulants. This is evidenced in common names given to some trilliums such as birthwort or birthroot.
The Pacific trillium is widespread across the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rocky Mountains. Although it might be tempting to pick the pretty white blooms along the path, experts advise against damaging the delicate flowers.
Dr. Erik S. Jules, professor of botany and ecology at Cal Poly Humboldt who specializes in plant ecology, said that the Pacific trillium is not endangered, and that it’s doing quite well in the Arcata Community Forest. It is, however, sensitive to disturbances.
“Like the trampling associated with the frisbee golf course in the forest,” Jules said. “So they tend to be less abundant right in those immediate areas.”
Trillium are ephemeral bloomers, which means they flower for a short period of time and go dormant until the next year. Trilliums live for up to 70 years, and damaging them can compromise their ability to bloom again.
“Picking them generally doesn’t kill them, but will definitely reduce their ability to grow and flower the following year, so people should never pick the plant or flower,” Jules said.