In Bloom: Western Wake Robin, a Spring Ephemeral

Western Wake Robin in Seattle Japanese Garden

The charming Western Wake Robin is a Pacific Northwest native that quietly blooms in Seattle Japanese Garden from late-March to early April.

Trillium ovatum (coast, or western, trillium – also known as western wake robin) is my favorite “spring ephemeral.” We’re fortunate to have it in the Seattle Japanese Garden: it’s one of the plants native to the Pacific Northwest that are present in the garden, even though they’re not native to Japan.

The word ephemeral means transitory or quickly fading, and “spring ephemeral” refers to herbaceous (that is, non-woody) plants that come up quickly in the spring, flower and set seed, then die back to their underground structures (roots, rhizomes, bulbs, etc.). This strategy is common in deciduous forests: there, wildflowers emerge while light levels are high, and before the tree canopy closes in.

The genus name, Trillium, comes from the Latin “in 3’s,” because all main plant parts appear in 3’s. This includes leaves, flower petals, sepals (short, narrow, green petal-like leaves just beneath the flowers) and stigmas (the receptive tip within each flower that receives pollen). Flowering begins in early spring, about the time that robins appear, or “wake up,” hence the charming common name “wake robin.”

Trillium ovatum is found throughout Western Washington, at low to middle elevations, in moist to wet woods, streambanks, and shaded open areas. It emerges in early spring from short, fat, fleshy rhizomes (modified stems found underground, from which both roots and shoots emerge). Flowers consist of 3 overlapping petals on a stalk, and change (with age and the process of pollination) from white to pink and then burgundy. Below them are 3 small, green sepals. The leaves are larger, and triangular-oval in shape, with a “drip-tip.” Occasionally they appear in groups of 5, rather than 3.

Ants play a major role in the creation of new plants. The small, green, berry-like fruits contain seeds with an oil-rich appendage. The ants transport the seeds to their nest, where they or their larvae eat the oily parts. The remaining seeds are discarded, and the ants’ intervention serves as the wildflower’s “seed dispersal strategy.” Other native “ant plants” include Dicentra (bleeding heart), Vancouveria (inside-out flower) and Asarum (wild ginger).

As a spring ephemeral, Trillium helps us to appreciate change and the fleeting nature of beauty. In addition, it helps us to cultivate patience. Even in the conditions that it prefers (light shade and fertile, humus-rich, moist, well-drained soil), a Trillium plant is slow to increase. Young plants take 3-5 years to bloom, and even after 10 years, the clump is probably only about 15 inches wide. Although it’s not native to Japan, I appreciate this wildflower for the lessons it offers us: cultivating patience and awareness of beauty’s ephemeral nature. These are some of the basic values of our garden and Japanese-style gardens everywhere.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.