Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Despite its name, you won't find Prairie Trillium in open grassland. Instead, this spring wildflower prefers secluded nooks and crannies on the forest floor. If you are lucky enough to have access to woodlands, you may find the elusive Prairie Trillium.
They can be inconspicuous flowers if you aren't on the lookout for them. As the name implies, the number three is a key feature. The leaves occur in threes atop a stem, and are mottled in shades of green, giving an almost camouflage effect. The flower petals of the Prairie Trillium also occur in threes, and are a deep shade of burgundy which can fade into the shadows of the forest if you don't look carefully.
Unlike some other Trillium species, Prairie Trillium flower petals remain upright, never appearing fully open. Some have described the petals as being "clawlike". To me, they look like tiny tulips. Either way, they really are a prime example of elegant simplicity in nature.
Prairie Trillium, and other trillium in general are great choices for shade or woodland gardens. They grow best with early spring sun, progressing to part or full shade as the trees overhead leaf out. They prefer moist, loose, rich soil. They spread via rhizomes underground or seed.
Propagating Trillium can be a very difficult project. The rhizomes generally don't tolerate division well, and are slow to re-establish and bloom. You will find Trillium seed for sale, but bear in mind that Trillium seed can take up to two years to germinate, plus five to seven years to become flowering size! This may tempt you to dig Trillium from the wild, but this is not recommended. Some Trillium species are endangered, threatened, or otherwise protected, and it may take years for a wild population to recover from being disturbed by digging. The best strategy is to purchase rhizomes from companies that propagate their own Trillium.