Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Herb of the Week - Trout Lily

Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum
Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum
Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

Trout lilies are one of the "spring ephemerals" - wildflowers that do all their living for an entire year in a few short weeks each spring before vanishing beneath the soil until the next year. The ephemerals group include some of the most eagerly anticipated blooming plants that I know of - trillium, bloodroot, spring beauty, hepatica, and more. The trout lily certainly holds it own in this illustrious group.

This beautiful little plant is native to the woodlands of Eastern North America. It has yellow, almost violet-like flowers and distinctively spotted leaves. These physical characteristics have inspired quite a number of common names such as: adder's tongue, dog tooth violet, serpent's tongue, and yellow snowdrop. I so love the "color" of common names!

Trout lilies are rarely sighted as single plants. If happy in their location, these plants will spread to form a colony on the forest floor. Even without the pretty flowers, a carpet of their spotted leaves is a beautiful spring-time sight.

The trout lily is edible - both the corms and the young leaves can be boiled and eaten. (Source: Peterson's Edible Wild Plants) And both the bulbs and leaves have been used medicinally as an emetic, emollient, and antiscorbutic (when fresh) and a nutritive when dry. It is also said that the root and leaves simmered in milk could be used in remedies for dropsy, hiccoughs, vomiting, and bleeding from the lower bowels while the plant boiled in oil was used for wounds and to reduce inflammation. (Source: Indian Herbology of North America by A. Hutchens) See the entry for more information on the plant's uses.

But with other foods and remedies more commonly available, why would you want to pick this beauty for food or medicine? Like many wildflowers, the trout lily does not reproduce quickly. It can take up to 8 years to mature from seed. Loss of habitat along with irresponsible picking or harvesting can decimate such wild plants. If you do have a woodland area or garden, be sure to invite this plant into it. If you are a wildcrafter or a forager, appreciate this plant for how it has been used but please pass it by. Take only photos and memories from it to ensure it will remain for future generations.