Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Work Without Hope. Lines Composed on a Day in February
Every year it’s the same thing. For what seems an eternity, we complain about winter, the cold, the snow and ice but then, suddenly, one day it’s spring. Time to look for spring ephemerals! Two that are relatively abundant in many of Ottawa’s urban forests are trillium and trout lily.
Ephemerals are perennials plants that appear only in the spring. Within a few short weeks, their leaves and flowers die back into the soil and the roots go dormant until the following year, leaving no trace that they were ever there.
Some species can lay dormant for years until conditions are right. Red trillium, for example, reappeared in Hampton Park after a long absence. One likely reason is that in 2015 about 400 diseased ash trees were removed, which changed the amount and pattern of sunlight that fell on certain parts of the woods.
Trillium come in many colours but the best known is the white variety, also the provincial flower of Ontario. Contrary to popular belief white trillium are not a protected species. An Ontario MPP’s bill to protect it was never passed. White trillium leaves are edible but their leaves and flowers are quite fragile and picking them can kill the plant. They make much better models for nature photographs!
Trout lily is a protected species in some American states, but not in Canada. They live in large colonies and can take up to seven years or more to flower. As its name suggests, their mottled green and brown leaves resembles the fish and they have a slight waxy feel to them. The flowers are usually yellow or white. The corms are the rounded tubers at the bottom of the leaf stem, just under the soil.
Trout lily leaves, flowers and corms are edible. However, because trout lily colonies can take many years to establish and be sensitive to over harvesting, anyone who plans to forage for them should do so very sparingly. A good rule of thumb is one leaf per every five plants and only a few flowers. Another good reason to go easy on trout lily is because it is an emetic; eat too much and you’ll throw up!
Where to find them: Look for trillium and trout lily in shaded areas on the edges of wooded areas. These low-growing plants like woodlands because they can take advantage of the spring sunshine before trees begin to leaf and are then protected by the trees once they go dormant. Be careful where you step!
For information about trout lily, visit the Canadian Wildlife Federation at
For information about trillium, visit the Northern Ontario Plant Database at http://northernontarioflora.ca/description.cfm?speciesid=1002574.
Before eating any wild grown plant, do you homework. Correctly identify the plant from at least three reputable resources. Anyone can have an allergic reaction to any plant, so if in doubt don’t put it in your mouth.