Nature Nugget: That’s not a speckled fish in the woods, it’s a trout lily!

trout lily

On early spring rambles through sunny woods, you might be forgiven for thinking the forest floor is covered with little speckled fish. The trout lily is named for mottled leaves that resemble speckled trout. In springtime, it’s often the first sign of green in hardwood forests throughout eastern North America.

Leaves are soon joined by scattered showy yellow flowers. This plant does almost all its work—flowering, fruiting, storing food—in early spring before the trees leaf out and shade the forest floor. (Once tree leaves emerge above, there may be almost no sign of this spring wildflowers, but much is still going on below ground.)

The showy yellow lily-like flowers have pollen-producing stamens that can be either yellow or red-brown (perhaps of interest to different insects?). Bees pollinate the trout lilies.  

There is even a bee—the trout-lily andrena bee—that favors trout lilies!

patch of many trout lilies under a tree

How do trout lilies spread across the forest floor?

After being pollinated by bees, the plant forms seeds in green pods that flop to the ground on their flexible stems. The seeds are shed in mid-summer.

Many of those seeds will not survive, but once in a while, late in the fall, a seed will germinate and produce a tiny corm, or underground food storage organ, and in the following spring, a tiny leaf.

In mid-June or so of that second year, that little plant will produce one or more delicate, almost translucent, stems commonly called “droppers.” Near the end of each dropper is another corm which, with the help of the dropper, moves downward into the soil. Next season, it will produce a new tiny leaf. And the process continues, and the patch expands.

In mid-June, when the leaves are all but withered away, many of the young plants that are not yet able to produce flowers will send out overground stems or stolons called “droppers,” and at the end of each of these is produced a corm and thus a new plant. Photo: Chris Rimmer

A 1,300-Year-Old Flower?

In this way, trout lilies spread over the forest floor, and hundreds of plants can result from a single beginning seed. All these little plants are genetically the same organism, and this group of related plants, this clone, can persist for decades or even centuries.

In one study, such colonies were found to be as old as 1,300 years!

A Patient Flower

As each of the young plants continues to grow, its corm, aided by the dropper, burrows even further into the ground, accumulating stored food over several years until it has enough energy to produce a flower and fruit. By the time it’s ready for this, it may be as much as a foot underground.

And the Cycle Begins Again…

And then, finally, victoriously, the plant produces not one, but two leaves, and a flower stalk, and a spectacular yellow six-parted flower that glories in the sun and in its ability to attract bees. The cycle begins anew.

single spotted trout lily leaf

It’s common to find many trout lily leaves without flowers—these plants are too young to produce flowers and fruits, but many of them will, after several years of storing enough food.