Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 640 Trillium underwoodii

Common Names: purple toadshade,sweet Betsy,wake robin Family: Melanthiaceae (trillium Family)
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purple toadshade
In late winter and early spring colonies of purple toadshade appear in Steve's garden in Florida's panhandle.


Trilliums (from the Latin for "three") have all their parts in threes: three "leaves" (actually bracts), three sepals, three petals, three stigmas on the pistil, and six stamens. Trilliums have a single 8-12 in (20.3-25.4 cm) stem (technically a peduncle) that arises from a perennial rhizome and bears a single whorl of three leaflike bracts, and just above them, a single flower. One of the most common and widespread trilliums in the southeastern US is T. cuneatum, or purple toadshade. Most authorities recognize T. underwoodii as a distinct, but closely related species. The two are very similar and their ranges are adjoining without overlapping, so we treat them together. The "leaves" of purple toadshade are mottled dark and light green, with most of the light green down the center. The leaves are 2-4 in (5.1-10.2 cm) long and droop down almost to the ground. The greenish-maroon (sometimes brown or yellow) flower petals stand straight up and never open fully. The flowers have a peculiar spicy fragrance that some find unappealing. Purple toadshade blooms in very early spring.


Purple toadshade occurs in the southeast US from North Carolina and Kentucky to north Florida and Mississippi. T. underwoodii is restricted to north Florida and adjacent Alabama and Georgia. Purple toadshade grows in rich, calcareous woods and slope forests, in the shade of hardwoods like American beech (Fagus grandiflora), southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), and various oaks and hickories.


Purple toadshade likes a neutral to basic soil. Add lime to acid soils. Light: Purple toadshade, like most trilliums, does well in shade. Moisture: Purple toadshade goes dormant in mid-summer, thus avoiding serious droughts. Hardiness: USDA Zones 7 - 8. Other species of Trillium occur as far north as zone 3. Propagation: By dividing the rhizome or by seed.
purple toadshade
The upright yellow flower petals of purple toadshade stand erect and never open fully.


Trilliums dug from the wild usually die. The practice of digging wild plants is selfish and condemned by all responsible naturalists and gardeners. And, it is illegal on public lands and on private lands too unless you have the owner's permission. Unfortunately, only a few nurseries have trilliums for sale, but it is worth looking for them. They make striking, albeit ephemeral, groundcovers in the shade of a large oak. I have a small patch of purple toadshade under a spreading oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and am delighted each spring when they come up stronger and more numerous than the year before.


There are about 30 species of Trillium native to eastern North America, the Himalayas and eastern Asia. Twenty species occur in the US. A few of these are more common in cultivation and there are even some selected cultivars available commercially.


The rhizomes of trilliums are said to be poisonous.

Steve Christman 2/10/00; updated 3/13/04

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Trillium species profiled on Floridata:

Trillium grandiflorum

( great white trillium,white trillium,white wake robin )

Trillium underwoodii

( purple toadshade,sweet Betsy,wake robin )

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