2 becomes 200: how to divide trillium

how to divide trilliumI DON’T RECALL HOW I FOUND THEM—maybe it was while fixing something, or painting the house all those years ago. But for some reason I was down at ground level, peering under the floor of the front porch, and there they were, in near-darkness: two tiny trillium plants. I rescued them, and you know how it goes when a plant thanks you for your help: Now I have hundreds, thanks to those first two, and to a tip handed down from a great gardener about dividing them when they’re in flower. Yes, like right now.

The books, and most experts, will recommend you wait until around fall, but sometimes trilliums and other ephemerals aren’t so easy to find by then as they are in spring, in their flowering glory (above). This little “aha” was imparted to me and Ken Druse by Evelyn Adams of Wellesley, Massachusetts, when we visited her garden awash in trilliums one spring, working on Ken’s 1994 book “The Natural Habitat Garden.”

“How did you get so many?” Ken asked the elderly Adams, and it was simple, she said: She dug them up and separated them when they were in flower—you know, when you can see just where they all are, since none have gone dormant.

The instruction made such an impression that Ken and I have both been doing it this way—not waiting till late summer or fall—for years. (Wild plants must never be dug for this or any purpose. Commercially, trillium are ethically propagated by seed.) Since their rhizomes are not too far below the soil surface, it’s not hard work to find the mass of tangled roots and rhizomes.

Each division from your garden needs to have at least an eye or growing point, but neither of us cuts them up into tiny bits—in fact, I just gently tease apart the clumps descended from those two native Trillium erectum, or wake-robin, and replant each rhizome. I count 10 divisions in that shovelful, above, each of which will become an entire clump. They’ll need to be watered well, especially the ones that have top-heavy flowers on them, and then baby-sat a bit till they resettle, but the divisions typically bloom the next year.

My favorite day to do this: a rainy one, like today. The graphic below shows the simple steps in photos:

how to divide trillium

anatomy of a trillium (and how to grow them)

(From Tony Avent at Plant Delights)

Trillium foetidissimum from Plant Delights Nursery‘TRILLIUMS have an interesting anatomy,” Tony Avent writes in the Plant Delights catalog. “The three ‘leaves’ that give trillium plants their characteristic form are actually bracts. The true leaves are greatly reduced structures that surround the underground rhizome. Trillium seeds are also fascinating…they are attached to a nutritious structure called an elaiosome that insects love to eat. When trillium seeds are ripe, ants and wasps carry them to their nests where they consume the elaiosome and leave the seed to germinate…a horticultural win-win situation.”


  1. Lisa says:

    I am so excited to try this tomorrow! All my trillium varieties are in bloom and the weather just turned unexpectedly cool and rainy. The only thing I regret is disturbing them when they look so beautiful.

  2. Deirdre says:

    I divide my trilliums. I also learned to recognize seedlings (They don’t look like trilliums until their third year) that I move around the garden when they insist on coming up in the driveway or some such silly place.

      1. margaret says:

        At first they don’t look like much, Dorinda. Then pretty quickly they shape up to look like small versions of your basic three-leaf trillium.

  3. Rosalie says:

    A very helpful article we brought a white and red trillium two years ago but we have never devieded them up we will do it today cheers Rosalie

  4. shannon says:

    I wonder if it’s possible to collect the seeds somehow and propagate the wild ones that way, as you’re not supposed to dig them up.

    1. margaret says:

      You can cut bad withered/brown foliage and stems if you like. You may see that there are seedpods…so I like to wait till those are “ripe” and the seeds disperse so I gate baby trillium next year, too.

  5. Bill White says:

    OK so I stumbled onto this georgous plant that I have been able to identify as a trillium. Now, is it a shade plant, what do I feed it, propagation seem straight forward except what kind of soil does it like. what does it like in off season months, is it a house plant, I dought that, what type environment does it like.

  6. Barbara says:

    After our drought of last summer all my trillium came up except my 20 white grandiflora are not coming up at all..Are they resting or gone?

    1. margaret says:

      Don’t know, Barbara, but I will say that all of mine (transplanted or long in place) just poked through this last week (like April 20th) finally. Not sure if that’s late or on time.

  7. Stefanie says:

    Hello! Due to upcoming construction I’ll be losing my shady spot. A friend on the other side of the state is interested in adopting my trillium. Can I keep them in pots for a month or so until I can plan a visit?

  8. Ann says:

    I’m going to try this as the trilliums I buy and plant don’t survive. I have had this clump for years in our woods that doesn’t seem to spread. Maybe it just needs a helping hand?

  9. Linda says:

    Excellent blog as trilliums are very pricey here. Will try a division although my trilliums do not seem to multiply. LF

  10. Gene says:

    We have a small (5’x6′) patch in a shady corner of a fence that is shared by a whisky barrel & water pump, Lilly-of-the Valley, and several trillium that date back to the ’50s and my in-law’s garden.

    The Lilly-of-the Valley moved in from my neighbor to take advantage of my soil and the water. I don’t think there is any still on the other side. The trillium has survived well for the past 15 years since transplanted; but has not spread much. I’ll try moving one patch to give it some room.

    Would the presence of tree roots cause the trillium to want to stay put?

  11. Rich says:

    My trilliums are the beautiful red … but, there are a couple of white ones mixed in. Where do the white ones come from? Also, this spring I noticed a couple of red plants with white centers! Really pretty. Do trillium flowers pollinate themselves? Thanks for the info.

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