growing trilliums, with tony avent of plant delights
TONY AVENT of Plant Delights Nursery and the Juniper Level Botanic Garden in North Carolina operates one of the largest trillium-propagation programs in the world, with nearly 10,000 plants in production. Me? I started with three, and now I have a bunch more—but I’m no less crazy about them than Tony.
When I got my little Victorian-era house 30ish years ago, it was in disrepair, including a sagging front porch. If the porch hadn’t been a wreck, I might never have been crawling around its perimeter that first spring to assess the situation, and wouldn’t have seen three little reddish flowers poking their faces out from just beneath it–native Trillium erectum or wakerobins that I rescued and transplanted, plants that have multiplied since.
Tony and I talked about the showy-leaved Southeastern species he particularly loves (many are hardy up North, too); about how they multiply (and which ones are inclined to do so faster); about what Trillium combine well with in the garden, and why we should look for “nursery-propagated” and not “nursery-grown” plants. Most of all: We talked about how easy they are to grow—and fall in love with. (Above, left to right: T. underwoodii, a native species, and the hybrid called T. ‘Van Buren Mosaic.’)
Read along as you listen to the March 13, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). (That’s Tony and some of his crack horticultural staff, below.)
trillium q&a with plant delights’ tony avent
Q. Before we talk trillium: People know your catalog, Plant Delights, probably more than the Juniper Level Botanic Garden; can you tell us more about that, because I think it’s an important story behind the whole operation?
A. We’re a little different than a typical mail-order nursery, because the reason we are here is because of the botanic garden. It’s about our plant preservation, and plant-propagation efforts. We have an extensive research program; we’re out looking for new plant species.
We have a little over 22,000 of what’s called taxa—which means different kinds of plants. So we really have one of the larger collections in the United States. And we’ve just got a foundation set up to preserve the gardens after we close the nursery. We actually started the nursery to simply fund the research work and the garden, and hopefully fund an endowment to keep it going long after we close the mail-order down. So we are a very different animal.
Q. And you have lots of open days as well.
A. We’re not open full time, but we open for six days in the winter, six in the spring, six in summer and six in fall, because when you have a lot of plants, the garden looks good pretty much 12 months of the year—at least for us. We don’t have quite the amounts of snowfall that those in the Northeast of Pacific Northwest have. But yes, we want people to see the garden each season, and realize there are so many incredible plants that are in bloom or look nice in wintertime or fall or the summer.
There is just so much. We want to help people increase diversity, and in the case of rare plants, they need to be spread all over, because if we actually believe that global warming is happening—the climate change is happening—the worst way to preserve plants is to keep them where they were 10,000 or 100,000 years ago.
The best way to actually preserve them is to propagate them and send them around the world; that way they are going to survive somewhere.
Q. Do you remember your first Trillium, Tony? [Laughter.] I remember mine: It was under the porch.
A. Actually I do, and it was probably back some—we’re telling our age now—but it was probably 50-some years ago. I bought some at Kmart. They used to sell them (and I understand they still do) in the little bags, where you buy dry rhizomes for a dollar or two. I planted those, and planted them for several years, and never got one to grow or survive.
So I, like everyone else, bought into this idea that trilliums are hard to grow, and not adapted to our region. That one I tried to forget, but it’s actually still in the memory bank.
Q. I think it was improvement from there. [Laughter.] You’ve done better, since as I said in the introduction, you have one of the largest trillium propagation programs in the world now.
Tell us a little about where they fit in in the world: where are they native to? I was looking in The Plant List–at ThePlantList.net, a collaboration of between Kew, Missouri Botanical, New York Botanical Garden, Edinburgh and so on—and I think they list about 50 species. Where are they? [Above, one of Plant Delights’ most unusual and newest Southeastern trilliums is showy ‘Julia,’ originally found near Nashville.]
A. It’s really interesting; there is a lot of really neat DNA work being done now, where we try to track where they came from. It had been thought for years, and all the books on the subject said, that trilliums originated in the Southeast U.S.
The new DNA says no, they actually originated in Asia, where there are still two or three species—there’s not much over there now. They crossed the Bering Strait, came in around California or Oregon, and then made it to the Southeast, where they actually speciated. What that means is they became at home, made new babies, and each baby made new species.
And then they actually went back—and that’s where the Western trilliums came from. Again, there is only a handful out on the West Coast. So it’s really the Southeast U.S. that has the majority—a state like Alabama, for example, has almost two-dozen native trillium species. Then up in the Northeast you’re getting into a half-dozen species up there. So the Southeast U.S. is sort of the center, the goldmine, of trilliums nowadays.
Q. So you’ve very conveniently located, aren’t you? [Laughter.]
A. It was awful nice. We’re not quite in Alabama (and Georgia is close behind them), but it’s a very short road trip.
Q. When I mentioned that I rescued the Trillium erectum from under the porch, one of my native ones in New York State. I think of them as a woodland plant here—maybe acidic soil with good organic content, or maybe not, since I am just assuming because that’s where I see it here. Are they all woodlanders, or are they diverse in their habitat preferences? [T. erectum at Margaret’s, above.]
A. They’re primarily woodland, but we have found them in Taiwan on the roadside, growing in rock cracks.
A. That was really the first I had seen outside of a true woodland, but the majority of them, yes, are in woodlands. Now they range from very high, dry areas, where we have seen things like Trillium catesbaei growing, to Trillium lancifolium, where you actually need waders on because you are wading through 2-to-3-inch deep water.
Q. You’re kidding.
A. No, they grow in bogs, as does Trillium pusillum. You can’t walk in there with regular shoes. They grow on tiny little hummocks, maybe an inch or two above the normal water level, so they completely flood, but normally they are about 1 inch above the water. So there really is a great diversity of areas.
Sort of the signature tree we look for when we are driving along—for most of the trilliums—are beech trees. They are very easy to spot, because mostly beeches hold onto their leaves in the wintertime and even early spring. Typically those are indications of a little more alkaline soil.
A. So while trilliums will grow in acid, they actually prefer something right around neutral. So they really do have a wide range of garden conditions in which they grow.
Q. I think of the word ephemeral, and some of the other early spring woodlanders we use as shade garden plants. Are they all ephemerals, and all early bloomers?
A. I would consider almost all of them ephemerals. What that means is they come up very early, and go down very early. Any plant that’s native to a deciduous forest in the U.S. realized long ago: I’ve got to come up, I’ve got to grow, I’ve got to flower and set my seeds, because once the leaves come on the trees, I don’t have any more light.
Q. Make hay while the sun shines, right? [Laughter.]
A. Exactly. They really do, and it’s very interesting because the trilliums from the Deep South—which are primarily the ones we are focused on—many of those are up and in bud and even a few are in flower by Christmastime. So these are very different from what most people know, which is coming up in April or May, and then they obviously go down very early.
There are others like Trillium catesbaei that comes up for us in March or early April, and those leaves look just as good at first frost in late October as they do when they come up. So it’s one of those odd species that just stays up all through the season.
Q. So the genus name starts with “tri-,” which gives us a hint about how the plants are structured. Can you take us through the parts of the plant?
A. The prefix “tri-“ means three, so most species have three leaves, and three petals. There are two different groups what we call the pedicellate trilliums, and the sessile trilliums. Sessile is a Latin word meaning “no stem,” so that means the leaves are in a flat horizontal plane, and the flower sit right on top of those—there is no stem. [More about trilliums from Tony’s website.]
Pedicellate is s fancy word for a little bitty short stem between the leaves and the flowers. Most people in the Northeast only know the pedicellate trilliums, and all of those have green foliage. When you get into the sessile trilliums, which is more of the Southern trilliums, you get into this camouflage foliage that runs anywhere from silvers to greens to purples—beautiful kaleidoscope of colors. So two completely distinct groups, but they both grow equally as easily.
Q. So you are trying to tell me that you have superior trilliums to what I have? [Laughter.]
A. They have a longer season of interest.
A. I’m not saying they are superior, but they definitely have a much longer season. Again, most trilliums’ flowers are not going to be there very long, especially if you have hot weather. But with the ones with the foliage, you’ve got pretty much four months of interest, even if they don’t flower.
Q. On your website (and on YouTube) you have a video shot about this time one recent year [in March], where you show the process of propagating them, and your operation there. Some take quite a long time to germinate, don’t they? This is not something for the impatient gardener. [Laughter.]
A. That is for sure. Generally we grow them from seed, and seed is a four-to-seven-year process—so it’s certainly not fast, which is why there is only us and really one or a couple of others that grow trilliums commercially. You have to invest the time up from—five to seven years—before you have anything to sell. It’s not something you do if want to make money. It’s something you want to do if you want to preserve species, and if you want to give people an alternative to buying the store-bought plants, which are in all case pretty much dug from the wild.
Q. Which is unethical, illegal and bad, right?
A. It depends; it’s like my economic friend said: With everything, it depends. If you have it on your own land, you’re certainly welcome to dig it up. A lot of people do sneak into land and dig quantities to sell under the night skies. And the recently what’s happened is that people were getting smarter in terms of asking: Is this nursery-propagated (instead of nursery-grown)? And a lot of people don’t understand the difference.
What happens is that there is a big market now for trillium laundering, just like drug money laundering. People dig them, usually in Tennessee or Missouri—those areas—and then they ship them overseas to Holland. Then they bed them down in their nursery for a short time, and then ship them back to the U.S. as “nursery-grown” trilliums.
Q. Uh! OK.
A. It’s amazing to go over there and see the amount of trilliums that get dug out of the wild. Is that sustainable? In some populations, probably actually yes—I have visited some sites in the Southeast that truly there were so many you could have dug for 100 years and not made a dent. Other sites, you dig for one year and they’re just gone. We really want to encourage more people to look for nursery-propagated trillium.
Q. Nursery-propagated, yes. Speaking of propagation: I have always been fascinated—and this is true of some other woodlanders like bloodroot and I think violets—that the way the seeds are dispersed in nature relies on helpers, often from the insect world.
A. Trilliums are especially neat because when they are ready they produce a chemical that is technically called an elaisome. Basically what it is, is a syrup. That attracts insects. We actually gather our seed in the garden and sow them there, and we have seen wasps come down and pick up seed that we are sowing and fly off with it.
A. It is amazing to watch, and ants also do the same thing. If you are going to grow them, you have to harvest the seed before it’s actually ripe. If you don’t, there is a critter going to take those things.
Q. Because of my very primitive beginnings with trilliums, what I have learned to do from that haphazard start years ago, is that I divide mine—lift them and spread them out—and that works, too, but it’s obviously not sexual reproduction. I let them self-sow and get babies, too.
A. Trilliums can easily be divided, and that’s another thing that people don’t realize. You can take a clump up, and just like a hosta, cut it into pieces. You’ve got an old rhizome underground, that looks like your finger, and that’s technically the stem. You can cut that in little sections and it will take you two years, but you’ll actually have little pieces coming up out of that rhizome. And if you don’t cut it. it’s going to die off anyway, so you might as go ahead and preserve that.
We actually like to divide them when they are in flower—that’s our favorite time to divide and move. It’s very counter-intuitive, but we’ve had incredible success, as long as you don’t let it sit out for several minutes. You water it in, and it doesn’t miss a beat.
Q. It’s interesting because being the great horticultural professional that I am (haha–NOT) that is when I do it. And the reason is that is when I know exactly where the plant is, and don’t make a mistake and go digging and chop through a rhizome if it’s dormant. You’re right; it’s as easy as can be.
I want to talk about particular ones that we can’t live without. I heard you say about some of the sessile ones, with no stem but showy foliage—and I think I have just one of those, maybe T. cuneatum [below left], but with yellow flowers, is that possible?
A. Trillium cuneatum has beautiful mottled foliage, like a camouflage jacket.
Q. Beautiful. What are some of the ones you want us to know, that you are most excited about?
A. Oh, wow; there are so many of the Southern ones that are so good. I think one of the most garden-worthy trilliums is Trillium foetidissimum [above right]. It’s named because it has an interesting fragrance. I certainly don’t call it foetid, like some people do, but it’s interesting—you really have to put your nose in them to smell them. But it’s a vigorous grower, and a very reliable plant. What we have found is that a number of these Southern trilliums actually thrive up into Zone 6 and some into Zone 5. It’s quite amazing.
To most people, you are probably not going to notice the difference between Trillium cuneatum and Trillium foetidissimum, other than the fact that cuneatum rarely offsets—but foetidissimum offsets like crazy.
Q. When you say that, in other words it makes more, dividing itself?
A. It divides itself underground, yes.
A. Things like Trillium lancifolium [below right], the narrow-leaf trillium, will make an 18-inch-wide patch with 50 stems in that. That’s an easy one to spread around. We love that; we actually try to make named selections that have characteristics like this—that multiples really great.
I just divided yesterday one that we found that has black leaves, a Trillium lancifolium that multiplies really fast—so a couple more years of dividing. And then we actually have this year two very interesting things.
We have one trillium that we call a unillium—it only has one leaf ever.
Q. A unilliium—come on, Tony. [Laughter.]
A. Oh, yes, it’s the first-ever marketed unillium. We found this in the woods down in South Carolina, and the rhizome underground actually just grows in a circle, so you have this circle of leaves that keep going around like a snail shell. It’s very weird, and then this year we have the first ninillium that we have ever offered, which has three sets of three leaves—so it has nine leaves. [Above left, the “unillium” or Tony calls Trillium oostingii ‘Solitary Man.’]
Q. Oh, you’re having fun with this one, I can tell. [Laughter.]
A. Oh, absolutely—we love the weirdos.
Q. I know you do.
A. In people, the stranger they are the more interesting they are, and in plants it’s the same way.
Q. Weird is good. In your gardens, which are so extensive—both at the botanic garden and the nursery and at home—what are some of the things that you like to have near or with your trilliums, that make good companions, and do their thing after or with them?
A. Oh, wow; there are so many wonderful woodland things. I happen to be a huge fan of the Dentaria, or Cardamine, depending on your taxonomist. These are little woodland plants that are in full bloom for us right now in early March—they have been in bloom since mid-February. They are very tiny little groundcovers and are absolutely perfect with trilliums. And you have so many things that will follow right behind the trilliums, and where you can also double-crop the land—like the hostas, the ferns, the orchids.
Oh my goodness, I wish more people were growing the little terrestrial orchids [above, Bletilla ochracea ‘Oriental Gold.’] They are so, so good and so easy to grow. Everybody’s read that terrestrial orchids are hard to grow, but they are not—they are actually very easy. And they just fit so well with the trilliums in the woodland garden.
Q. What about the Arisaema—you have a lot of Jack-in-the-pulpits, and do you grow them in combination with the trilliums?
A. Absolutely, I have them growing right among them; they are just incredible. Some of them will actually flower at the exact same time, so if you get an early Jack-in-the-pulpit and a late trillium, you will have them both together and you’ll have those sort of purple or purple-striped flowers. They were born to be grown together. [Below, A. sikokianum ‘Silver Center’ and A. ‘Crossing Over.’]
Q. Born to be grown together. [Laughter.]
A. And they are—we see them in the wild together, yes. It’s a great way to duplicate that.
Q. And I guess that’s one way to take inspiration for the garden, is to see what its companions are in the natural setting.
A. No question.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 13, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(All photos copyright Plant Delights Nursery, except red T. erectum.)