If you know anything about wildflowers in the eastern United States, you probably know about yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), one of the foremost wild members of the lily family. Standing a diminutive six inches tall, it’s one of the first flowers of springtime, and it has some of the most distinctive coloration — not only on its flowers but on its leaves — of any plant in the region.
It also has other distinctive characteristics, ranging from dispersal by ants to clonal colonies, that make it fascinating and noteworthy. And as with all of nature, it has a lesson for us too, if only we will think creatively.
Yellow trout lily is known by other names as well, including dogtooth violet and adder’s tongue, on account of a resemblance to the animal in question. In particular, the root of the yellow trout lily is reputedly shaped like the tooth of a dog, and the flower like the open mouth and outstretched tongue of an adder — though imagination is obviously required to see either resemblance.
Yet the name that’s most common is the one that compares it to the trout, on account of the brown and green mottling on its leaves.
And these leaves, which are about three inches long and one inch wide, are noteworthy for another reason: yellow trout lily only ever has one or two of them, and each configuration has a distinct meaning.
Specifically, if a yellow trout lily has one leaf, then it will neither blossom nor go to seed. If it has two, then the opposite is true, and it will produce one flower — with six tepals (modified petals) and six stamens — in the course of its growing season before dying back and entering a dormant state, in which it will remain for the rest of the year.
This pattern of growth, characterized by a very short period of flowering and a very long period of dormancy, is characteristic of ephemerals, which are so common in early spring.
Another distinctive characteristic of the yellow trout lily is the way in which it reproduces. As mentioned above, it does reproduce sexually — and it’s helped in this process by a bee called the trout lily andrena (Andrena erythronii) — but it only does so with very limited success, resulting in about ten percent of pollinated flowers producing seed.
The seed which results has a distinctive characteristic of its own in the form of an elaiosome — from the Greek for “oil” (elaion) “body” (soma) — a kind of appendage which is rich in lipids and proteins and helps to attract other species, in this case ants. These ants then take the seed back to their colony, eat the elaiosome, and discard the remains into their refuse pile, where the seed may then grow into a plant. In biology, this sort of beneficial interspecies behavior is called mutualism.
The much more common and successful means of reproduction for the yellow trout lily, however, is asexual. In practice, this means reproduction by stolon, a kind of horizontal stem that grows from the root of the plant and eventually detaches to form its own separate organism. This pattern of reproduction in turn gives rise to the most common grouping of yellow trout lilies, in clonal colonies that are genetically identical to the mother plant and very closely grouped.
Yet despite their close grouping and obvious coloration — which would theoretically make them easy pickings for potential predators — yellow trout lilies tend not to be eaten by wildlife.
[Before harvesting or consuming wild plants, make sure you have the permission of the landowner and an understanding of considerations for use.]
Even though wild animals tend not to eat the yellow trout lily, it doesn’t mean that humans haven’t in the past. In fact, the entire plant — from root to stem to leaf to flower — is edible by humans in small quantities. Of course eating too much of the yellow trout lily can result in vomiting, since it is an emetic. But the sources I’ve consulted have confirmed that it is nontoxic, though occasionally irritating, to humans.
In addition, the yellow trout lily is reputed to possess mild medicinal properties. In particular, the leaf has been used for easing the pain of wounds and foot sores, and the root has been used to alleviate swellings and fever. Of course, there is the possibility of experiencing dermatitis, or inflammation of the skin, for sensitive individuals, so care should be taken.
But the greatest value of the yellow trout lily is not one of consumption but of life itself.
For we as humans must also make wise use of the time we have on this planet, which — as I can attest from personal experience — is all too limited. Like the yellow trout lily, our time in the sun is short and will come to an end much more quickly than we would like to think. Which is precisely why we must make the best use of it that we possibly can.
Just as the yellow trout lily harnesses every ray of sunlight to create energy, flowers, and new life, so we too must grasp every opportunity to make our world a better place for every species. For there will come a time in our own lives, as in nature, when the overshadowing canopy of circumstance drowns out the light of day.
And it’s at those moments that we must be the light for a world that has fallen into darkness.