Little Sweet Betsy

Trillium cuneatum. The flowers of Little Sweet Betsy bear a color that is found in only a handful of spring woodland ephemerals such as Wild Ginger, Red Trillium, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and Skunk Cabbage. The maroon red is often accompanied by a distinctive scent that may not always please the human nose. That’s because these flowers are pretending to be carrion in an effort, literally, to draw flies.  In early spring flies are scouring the forest floor for the freshly thawed remains of creatures that have died over the winter. The flower’s color is similar to dead meat, and the scents are often like those given off by carrion — mouth-watering to many kinds of flies. In the case of Sweet Betsy, visitors are typically blowflies or fruit flies. The former, being larger, may be more likely to provide pollen transportation services. However, sexual reproduction in Sweet Betsy is infrequent, and the plant also “clones” itself by underground division of its rootstock, resulting in long-lasting colonies. Trillium cuneatum, which favors upland woods, is also called Whip-poor-will Flower, Large Toadshade, Purple Toadshade, and Bloody Butcher.  Sweet Betsy refers to its scent, which some liken to banana, and a corruption over the ages of the word “birth.” The plant was used in midwifery because it was said to relax the patient, and was consequently sometimes called Birthroot. Birthroot became Bethroot, then just Bet, and finally Betsy. Toadshade, a term used for many trilliums, refers to the large leaves that could, if a toad so wished, provide shade. In chilly early spring, however, any smart toad would be soaking up all the sun it could find.

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