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Spring Ephemerals: Trout Lilies

May 9, 2024 by Maia Mencucci

The story of the trout lily is one of perseverance. Tiny tongues of mottled green leaves poke up out of the soil early in the spring to gather precious sunlight.  Emerging before grasses and perennials and before the trees above fully leaf out, trout lilies are one of the most common spring ephemerals in Vermont. The six-lobed yellow flower hangs off of a slender stem sometime in May, although we can see the leaves emerging even earlier.  Most of these tiny plants, which grow from a small bulb, do not actually flower in any given year. It takes seven years for a trout lily to gather enough energy to produce a flower.  Seven years of capturing sunlight in the brief between-period after the snow melts and before the taller perennials or forest leaves block out the sunlight.  The patience and perseverance of these tiny plants never fails to impress me.  

Trout Lily acquired from iNaturalist, photo credit to user: Dominic

Trout Lily (iNaturalist user Dominic)

Visiting your local river in early May, you will likely find these lovely flowers along the banks, glowing against the dull browns of last year’s stems and hesitant, bright greens of this year’s first shoots.  Trout lilies prefer wet soils, and I often find them in the corner of a hay field where a spring bubbles up, or in low areas where all the snow melts and runs down to.  While they also go by the name adder’s tongue and dogtooth violet due to their pointed leaf shape, the name trout lily suits their preference for wet feet.  The mottled silvery brown spots against the green leaf closely resemble the coloration on our local brook trout, hence the name.  

Trout Lily (iNaturalist user Michael J. Papay)

A single colony of trout lilies expands a little more every year, and can remain for 200 or even 300 years.  If you find a small patch of mottled green and brown leaves poking singularly up out of the dead grass along the river bank, as long as you are positive of your identification, you can nibble on one or two. An interesting, almost sharp flavor, but don’t have more than that.  They may look small and harmless, but the adder’s tongue does have a bite, and they can induce nausea and vomiting if eaten in large quantities.  I have eaten a handful of these leaves here and there over the years without any ill effects, but better to be safe than sorry.  This little plant is just another great example of the beautiful variety of unique plants we can find along our river banks.

Maia Menucci



Maia is an environmental science student at the Community College of Vermont. Living on a windswept hilltop farm in Walden, VT, she is an avid writer and reader, spending as much time as possible in the garden, or gaining inspiration from the beautiful outdoors.

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