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Red Trillium, Stinking Benjamin, Red Wakerobin, Wet Dog Trillium, Purple Wakerobin - Trillium erectum


Family: Liliaceae - Lily family Genus Common Name: Trillium Native Status: NativeMonocot Perennial Herb
Trillium erectum - Red Trillium, Stinking Benjamin, Red Wakerobin, Wet Dog Trillium, Purple Wakerobin. There are three similar Trillium species with the dark, nearly black ovaries - Trillium simile, Trillium erectum, and Trillium sulcatum. To further confuse, all may have red (maroon) or white petals (T. erectum may have yellowish or greenish petals as well.) White petals are the norm for T. simile, are uncommon but not real rare in T. erectum, and may occasionally occur in T. sulcatum. T. sulcatum flowers are smaller than the flowers of the other two species, and in T. sulcatum the petals are only slightly longer than the sepals.

It is more difficult to tell the difference between T. simile and T. erectum. The sepals and petals of T. erectum will usually be "flatter" - closer to being in the same plane with each other - than those of T. simile. The petals of T. simile are wider relative to the sepals, usually twice as wide or more, and are more likely to be recurved near the tip than those of T. erectum. With those difficult differentiators, perhaps the easiest way to tell the difference between these two species is to remember these common names and use them in reference to the fragrance - T. simile is "Sweet White Trillium", with a sweet fragrance similar to green apples, and T. erectum is "Stinking Benjamin", with an unpleasant musty odor more like that of a wet dog.

As mentioned above, the petals of T. erectum - the species presented here - are more commonly red than white, green, or yellowish, so another of the several common names for this plant is Red Trillium. There is some dispute as to whether the plants with the white petals, as shown here, are deserving of varietal classification (T. erectum var. album) or should instead be classified as a form; Flora of North America still lists it as a variety while stating that it more likely should be a form, and ITIS does not accept the varietal classification, so it appears that what is presented on this page is the white form of Trillium erectum.

Trillium erectum is mostly a northeastern species, it does extend its reach in the Appalachian Mountains southward to northern Alabama and Georgia. While it is reported that in the Smoky Mountains the white form is more common in the lower elevations and the red form in the upper elevations, the white form presented here were photographed at an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet.

Found in:
AL, CT, DE, GA, IL, IN, KY, MA, MD, ME, MI, NC, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, SC, TN, VA, VT, WV

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Trillium erectum

Distribution of Trillium erectum in the United States and Canada:
USDA Plants Distribution Map temporarily unavailable.
Blue=Native; Grey=Introduced

Map from USDA Plants Database:
USDA, NRCS. 2017. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 21 Oct 2017). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.

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Site: Luftee Gap, GSMNP, Swain County, NC Date: 2015-May-05Photographer: Gerald C. Williamson
Nikon D7000
While Trillium erectum usually has maroon red petals, the dark purple ovary is more prominent in the white form. The petals may occasionally also be yellow, pale green, or pink. Leaf, petal, sepal, and pedicel characteristics help differentiate it from similar white and red trilliums, but the Stinking Benjamin common name (and other somewhat pejorative common names) lead to another characteristics that should not be overlooked - the fetid smell, somewhat akin to that of a wet dog. This smell attracts one of its pollinators - carrion flies.
Trillium erectum

Site: Swinging Bridge Quiet Walkway, GSMNP, Swain County, NC Date: 2015-May-05Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
The three sepals are usually green; in the more common red form, they may be streaked with or occasionally entirely maroon. The sepals are usually about half the width of the petals and about the same length as the petals. The veins on the undersurface of the petals are prominent.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Trillium erectum

Site: Swinging Bridge Quiet Walkway, GSMNP, Swain County, NC Date: 2015-May-05Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
The sepals and petals of Stinking Benjamin are relatively closely aligned - more or less in the same plane; here on the “less” end of the spectrum. The petals are spreading to slightly erect. The sepals are mostly flat, with the tips usually furrowed - sulcate - as shown here. The sepals are more reflexed in this photo than is considered normal. The pedicel is more or less erect, holding the flower above the bracts.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Trillium erectum

Site: Swinging Bridge Quiet Walkway, GSMNP, Swain County, NC Date: 2015-May-05Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
The three leaves (technically bracts) of Trillium erectum are an umottled medium green. They are a rounded diamond shape (rhombic) with the widest part in the middle of the leaf, usually almost as wide as they are long. The veins are prominent, and the leaf has an acuminate tip.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Trillium erectum

Site: Luftee Gap, GSMNP, Swain County, NC Date: 2015-May-05Photographer: Gerald C Williamson
Nikon D7000
Trillium erectum flowers as early as late March, and you may find it blooming through May. It grows in rich, moist soils of upland forests.
Click on the photo for a larger image
Trillium erectum

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All content except USDA Plants Database map Copyright Gerald C. Williamson 2017
Photographs Copyright owned by the named photographer