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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 barely below the soil surface, you hardly have to dig very deep 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. yardflower says:

    I have never tried dividing trillium in bloom but it makes perfect sense. I am in Mississippi though and it may not work as well here. I plan to divide an experimental clump here today. They are through blooming but still highly visible so I think this will work. Also we are having a cold snap so less plant stress. Thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Yardflower. I think you could keep them very well watered and add some extra shade (fabric tied to bamboo, e.g.) if they are getting too much light. Glad you are experimenting too!

  2. Vicki Peterson says:

    I love trillium. I’d have to say they are my favorite flower, so simple and such a radiant white, then transforming to a beautiful maroon/burgundy. Plus being the harbingers of spring.
    I transplanted a couple into a fertile bed on the shady side of the house, and interestingly, they “morphed” and grew much taller with smaller bracts and flowers in the following years.
    Thank you for the tip on division. Now I can be surrounded by their beauty!

  3. Deirdre says:

    My house came with two big trillium clumps. They were seeding themselves in silly places like the gravel drive way, and on the path to the hose bib where they’d be stepped on. I’ve spread them all over the yard. The trick with seedlings is that they don’t have the characteristic leaves until the third year. I’ve also divided the clumps in the spring. Partly because I’m impatient and impulsive, and partially because that’s when I can find them.

  4. Linda says:

    I’m looking forward to mine getting big enough divide. Thanks for the great tip, Margaret. I would never have thought of dividing them while they’re blooming.

  5. Deborah Banks says:

    You inspired me to go out today and divide one of my big clumps of red trillium. I was able to separate it into several pieces after rinsing most of the soil off in a bucket, but it wasn’t easy to pull apart. Also, the biggest rhizome had 4 or 5 small plants growing out of it as well as the large “mother” plant, and I couldn’t see any way to separate those. Still, I have 5 different plants now instead of the one clump, which is great. I quit after that because the rain got heavier, so I’ll work on my other clumps another day.

  6. Melodie says:

    You inspired me too! Although I don’t have any Trillium, I dug my species tulips and moved them to a better place. They have only bloomed the first year for me, about 7 years ago. Since then they have multiplied ten fold but never bloomed again. Every year when the foliage comes up I say ‘I should move those’ but never do. This was the perfect day to do it…as the rain finally started to fall….perfect. Thank you!

    1. margaret says:

      Great idea, Melodie. Moving bulbs “in the green” (as opposed to in fall when dormant) is SO much easier. Thank you!!

  7. Linda Pastorino says:

    thank you so much for all the sharing of information ! Every week there are so many useful real tips for us to learn from.
    Joy Creek is a wonderulf nursery that didn’t know of and will be a new great source for me . It reminded me of the old Heronswood. They have such a diverse list of unusual collectors plants.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jennifer. They are surprisingly easy to grow, and I am loving them for that — beautiful, and pretty much carefree. See you soon!

  8. Carole Clarin says:

    After reading this post and listening to you on Robin Hood radio I went out and dug up my 2 red trillium and divided them! They appeared about 8-10 years ago hiding in my shady, wooded front garden and my husband, who never takes an interest in my garden, fell in love with them and moved them so we could enjoy their bloom. Now I’ll have next spring to look forward to many more beauties. So thrilled to get this tip!

  9. My husband and I rescued bushels of trillium one spring on the forested property adjacent to ours because developers were about to strip the entire forest bare. Sigh. We potted all of the trillium and put them in a shady place where I kept them well watered until they adjusted to the pot. Then we planted them. I wish I’d known about this terrific tip then! However, nothing is stopping me now, so thank you, Margaret!

  10. gail says:

    i recovered trillium years ago from the wild, i can’t wait for their bloom every spring and continue to hunt for them. dividing while in bloom is interesting. i know that trimming flowers is damaging. such a treasure!!

  11. Thanks for posting this topic. I take care of a friend’s horses when she goes away and they are up to their arm pits in trilliums, mostly white. The red ones are not as deep a shade as yours though, more of a pinkish colour. I have a spot where a lady’s slipper survives. It was rescued from bulldozers almost 20 years ago and had been transplated to different locations at least 3 times. Now that I know trilliums can be moved so easily the lady’s slipper will have some company. I think the area will be perfect as it is under a maple tree where we don’t rake as the sandy ground will not grow grass. (I suspect it used to be a sand pit for kids to play in before we bought the house). Again thanks for the great tip!

    1. margaret says:

      You are welcome, TakenForGraniteArt. Nice to think of the wildflower being united in your garden. Remember that generally they like woodland soil, so work in some compost to that sand!

  12. Susan says:

    I have only 2 stems with one beautiful white flower on each. I tried digging to divide and found only one plant. How many stems/flowers do I need before I can divide? I think I may have caused harm to my plant. Any suggestions?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Susan. Yes, like with all perennials it’s preferable to wait until you have a clump of them before you divide, like in the photos. Sorry not to be more specific. Just tuck it back in the ground and keep it well-watered. When you have a grouping (like let’s say 8ish or 10ish?) then do some dividing, to get you started on another grouping or two.

  13. DeeDee Parks says:

    I was looking for tips on whether to cut the leaves off after they were done blooming. The leaves are badly eaten (or infected) by something – not slugs – and are rather unsightly on the path leading to my front door. I shall wait, and try to figure out what the brown holes and spots are from. Thanks for the tip on propagating, my sister-in-law has been waiting for me to share what I took from my parents house several years ago.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, DeeDee. I would not cut down the foliage of any bulblike plant until it was totally yellowed/withered, but I know the temptation. :) Nice to see you here!

  14. Ginger says:

    Excellent! Thank you for the information. I have several large clumps of white trillium, and it would be great to spread them around to build up the show. Mine aren’t flowering quite yet, but they’re getting there. I’m really glad to know you can safely divide them while they’re green. . . I’d read in the past that you MUST wait until they’re dormant, that you must be extremely careful with them, etc, or you’ll basically kill them. . . but who wants to dig in when you can’t tell exactly where they are? Knowing me, I’d slice right through their rhizomes and kill them. Anyway, thanks again!

  15. Dahlink says:

    Just added “divide trilliums” to my “to do” list. We are having beautiful weather right now, but the forecast is for 4 days of rain this coming week–perfect!

    My original clump of red trillium was a housewarming gift from my in-laws 22 years ago. It came from their woodland garden in Illinois to live in Maryland. We now have two big clumps, so time to divide!

  16. Ellen says:

    I planted two trillium luteum, for the first time last spring, in the front of my shade garden along with a couple of bloodroots. Sadly, neither bloomed this spring but they did come back! Well, only one trillium. In late winter, I noticed a rhizome (with a bud) above the ground so I covered lightly with some compost, leaving the bud exposed. We had many frigid days following and that bud eventually disappeared. Should I not have covered the rhizome…or covered bud and all??? Your website is wonderful, thank you for the enlightenment and inspiration!

  17. virginia says:

    I would disagree on the ease of growing them. I used to be able to buy the rhyzomes in a local plant center. Since they are one of my favorite wild flowers, i would give them to my brother because they have enough shade for them. One by one, they all died. I am not sure why. His Virginia Bluebells are also dying off. Any ideas?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Virginia. They want sunshine in earliest spring (so the shade of deciduous shrubs/trees that will leaf out after these darlings do their thing). What is also important: Like the trilliums, they don’t want dry soil — so under very established trees (or especially under conifers) it may be too dry (and also too dark). So a spot that’s sunny till around May, then gets shadier when the leaves come on the trees/shrubs, and soil that is humusy so it can hold moisture (not by any means wet — I don’t mean that, and it needs to be well-drained — but not ever dry the way soil in too-tough spots can get). Think of the edges of the deciduous woodland and how all those leaves and so on would have fallen for years and made a “bed” for these wildflowers full of decomposed organic matter. And again, also where there is lots of light in the early spring.

      Hi, Ellen. I love luteum — what a beauty! Don’t give up yet. I find that many plants take some time to readjust and settle in. Year 1 is often a letdown. As for covering the rhizome, yes, it should be below the soil surface — a few inches, actually. Here’s more on planting them from New York Botanical Garden.

      Yes, Ginger, sounds like you have a a good supply to work with! Maybe divide one clump and see how you go, to get the hang of it. I have become bolder over the years. :)

      Hi, EllenBest. The rhizomes multiply underground as the plants mature, as do most (all?) bulb-like things, so I would expect older plants to have multiple stems and sets of leaves and flowers…indicating multiple rhizomes below.

  18. EllenBest says:

    Our trillium doesn’t seem to grown in bunches – but will dig some up today and see what you’re talkin’ about. We own Sara Stein’s house/property. Let me know if you’d like to visit sometime.

  19. Renee B says:

    I would love to find and buy trillium for our yard. They are hard to find and I’ve heard you are not supposed to harvest them from the wild. Any suggestions? We’re in the metro DC area.

  20. Cynthia says:

    Renee – I purchased mine at White Flower Farm. They sell online and by catalogue. I’m not sure if they
    are appropriate for your zone, but WFF will.

  21. Jennifer says:

    Hi there! The house that I now own had a garden full of trillium. It is an endangered species, which makes it more special to me. Since we have moved in, grass has gotten into the flower bed and a Tiger Lily and a Tulip have decided that they would like to keep it company. I was told by the previous homeowner not to disturb the soil or they would die out. Needless to say, I am a little nervous about moving this guy. I want to till everything up to get the grass out of there and start the bed over again. Any advice on moving without killing it?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jennifer. As mentioned in the article, I have never had trouble moving them as long as I know where they are (meaning not when dormant, which is a good time, too — but harder to get right without sticking your shovel right through the underground parts!). So all I know is from personal experience moving them in spring, just after flowering or thereabouts, and to minimize disturbance you could try to dig the clumps with some soil intact.

  22. Pam says:

    Margaret,

    Thanks so much for your info. For a few years now I have been wondering what this plant was that has been growing in a little sunken wetland area on my driveway. I decided this week to figure it out . . and voila, I saw your post on this – Trillium (Wake Robin)! I will certainly divide and spread them around so I can see more of them easy Spring . . . now that we’ve cleared out the Bittersweet vine on the surrounding trees.

    Happy Planting!

    Pa

  23. Robert Gamlin says:

    I found the comments very interesting and I only want to comment on one thing .
    Over the years I’ve been able to secure a good collection of a .variety of species and realize some species clumps up but others do not even within species like Erectom and Grandiflora, some form clumps others do not ,only 1 or.2 stems and don’t allow for separateing . There are 2 excellent Trillium books, explaining how to propergaate non clumpers and details of all the variety ‘ s etc
    Trillium s by Frederick W&. Roberta B. Case and American Treasures by Don L and Rob Jacobs trilliums in woodland gardens .

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Robert, for the extra tips. The Cases’ garden in Michigan was quite a revered place. Nice to hear from you!

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