Monday, April 15, 2013

Trout Lily Identified

Leaves, stems, corms in their papery sheath

There are several spring ephemeral plants we look forward to harvesting after a long, dreary winter and our bodies are craving something green and fresh. Hairy bittercress leaves are one, trout lilies are another. Commonly called trout lilies, fawn lilies, or dog's-tooth violets, (Erythronium americanum) are only visible for a brief period in the early spring, poking up leaves in late March or April, and disappearing again by late June. The mottled leaves are said to look like spots on a trout, and the underground corm is shaped like a dog's canine tooth, hence the common names. The plants take advantage of the abundant moisture of the winter snow melt and spring rains, and the abundant sunshine before many deciduous trees leaf out and shade the forest floor before becoming dormant for the remainder of the year.

Leaves, underside and top
Trout lilies are small plants with one or two 3"-7" lance-shaped leaves growing from the underground corm, or small bulb. Each leaf tapers at the ends, and is a dull green mottled with greyish-purple spots that often fade as spring advances. A single flower is produced on a 4"-8" stem growing directly from the base of the plant. The flower has six backward curving petals and protruding stamens, and the whole flower often appears to be pointing downwards. There are 23 species of Erythronium lilies native to North America, and our local trout lily has a yellow flower, but other species can have pink or white flowers. Erythronium lilies are abundant in eastern woodlands, the Rocky Mountains, wetter parts of the Great Plains and Pacific states.

Trout lily flower

Some guidebooks claim the entire trout lily plants is edible, but we usually only eat the underground corm. The raw leaves have a mildly bitter taste that none of us like, and we have not tried to eat the yellow flowers. We sparingly dig the tiny corms once or twice a year if we come across a healthy patch of trout lilies while out in the woods already. We don't remove many corms, because that kills the plant, and they are slow to reproduce and are losing habitat in Connecticut quickly to houses and lawns. The corm is very small, between 1/8"-1/2" long, elongated, and covered in a light brown papery skin that we remove before eating. The taste of the corm in the earliest parts of the spring are very sweet, since they are full of natural sugars that the plant needs to produce leaves and its flower. As the season progresses, the corm will become more firm and starchy, but still tasty. It has a firm crunch and is flavored like sweet corn or sweet peas. Because of the small size of the corm, it is difficult to dig in quantity. You might want to add some peeled corms to a veggie stir fry like water chestnuts, or add them raw to a spring greens salad, but we like them best fresh from the ground while hiking along a trail.

End of season lilies, flower has died back, leaves are dying

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