Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Sweet Betsy Trillium

There are at least 17 species of Trillium that occur in Tennessee; ranging from the rare and endangered Trailing Trillium (Trillium decumbens) to the magnificent Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum).

But for me, the star of the show is Sweet Betsy (Trilliam cuneatum). Not because it is the showiest, but because of its out-of-this-world fragrance.

If you have never smelled a Sweet Betsy Trillium (and you happen to live in the Southeast), you best find yourself one and breathe in deep - the aroma will knock your socks off.

It is a deliciously fruity smell, with hints of strawberry, citrus, banana and spice.

Its flower is usually maroon in color, but can also be bronze, yellow or green.

Sweet Betsy grows from 6-15 inches tall, with three mottled leaves that can grow 7 inches long.

Encircled by the three erect sessile petals are the blunt, two-toned stamens which enclose the flower's powerful perfume.

It also goes by the name Purple Toadshade, either in reference to the amphibian-like pattern on the leaves, or perhaps because they would provide the perfect shade umbrella for a toad.

To most people in the South, however, they are known as "Sweet Bubbies."

As the story goes, folks back in the day didn't bathe but once a week (usually on Saturdays so they could be fresh for Church). Southern ladies would rely on the powerful, sweet fragrance of these trilliums to mask any distasteful odors by sticking them right between their "bubbies."

Hence the name.

*Side note: There is another plant in Tennessee that is referred to as "Sweet Bubby," and that is Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus floridus). It was used in the same manner as Sweet Betsy Trillium.*

Trilliums are members of the lily family, and always have whorls of three leaves, 3 sepals and 3 petals.

Because of this symmetry, they are nicknamed the "Trinity Plant."

Sweet Betsies can be found blooming in moist woods from March to May. They are especially fond of limestone soils.

Their emergence from the forest floor is always dramatic. They rise slowly through the leaf litter, tightly clasped in a twisted bundle, unfurling over the course of several days.

Most trilliums are edible. The leaves and immature blooms can be harvested and sauteed as a green vegetable. Once the flowers open, the plant takes on a bitter flavor.

However, they are very slow to mature from seed, taking as long as 7 years. So be sure to harvest responsibly, if you choose to do so (and of course, only on land where you have permission).

Native Americans brewed tea from the rhizomes (roots) that was used to induce childbirth.

In later years, doctors would use the same tea to treat coughs, bowel issues, hemorrhage and lung problems.

The purpose of their heavy perfume isn't really to please our nostrils, but is meant to attract pollinators.

Not all trilliums smell so sweet, however. Some species mimic the odor of rotting carrion to attract flies and other insects drawn to the smell of death. Others are reminiscent of wet dog or dirty sneakers.

So it may serve you well to correctly identify your trillium before crouching on all fours to take a whiff.

Much like Bloodroot, trillium seeds have a pheromone-emitting aril attached to them, to fool ants into carrying them away to new destinations.

Deer also like to browse on trilliums. In regions that are over-populated by deer, there is a noticeable absence of trilliums.

Their long bloom period gives you plenty of opportunities to get out and find some.

When you do, be sure to kneel down and press your nose as close to the flower's center as possible.

Breathe deep, for there is no fragrance like it to be found in our southeastern forests.

Be sure to join us next Wednesday for our weekly wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower: Bloodroot

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


All About Tennessee Wildflowers - Jan W. Midgley

Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians - Dennis Horn & Tavia Cathcart


  1. So neat! I'm in the SE, but I have never seen this type of wildflower before that I can think of. To be fair, we have deer here for sure- one was running alongside my car yesterday when I left for work and they decimated my garden last summer. I think this flower or one of its ancestors may have been featured in the book Raptor Red (which is awesome if you like dinosaurs like I do btw!) when the author described flowers that smelled like rotting meat to attract critters it needed. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I'm sure you have some out your way, if you check around some of the less disturbed forested areas.

      Hmm..that flower you described kind of sounds like Carrion flower or Rafflesia. They are the worlds' biggest flower and the SMELLIEST!

  2. I have truly learned so much from your articles. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. We have Trillium around where I live. I loved the "bubbie" story ;-)
    Thank you for sharing on the Homestead Blog Hop. I hope we see you again tomorrow.
    Pinned! :-)

    1. Thanks Kelly! I'm glad you are enjoying my posts. :)

      See you next week!

  3. Really pretty! How do you find so many different interesting plants? Sadly we are overrun with deer so I doubt I'd find any here in Western Pa!

    Thanks for linking up with Green Thumb Thursday! I hope you'll join us again this week!


    1. We live in a State Park so we are cheating a little. :)

      See you next week!