In Mother Nature's Garden Native plants

In Mother Nature’s Garden: The Trout Lily

I’m starting a brand new series of columns: In Mother Nature’s Garden.

I am very excited about this one, since it will be about the most laidback of gardening: wild gathering!

In these columns, you will discover (rediscover?) common plants, easy to find, and that are edible and/or medicinal (proven by science). Sometimes through articles, sometimes through videos, I will have the pleasure to introduce you to plants of all types that can be consumed. European friends, don’t be disappointed: many of the plants I will present will also be widespread in Europe, or have an equivalent.

Are you ready? Here we go!

The Trout Lily, Recognize the First Plant of Spring

It may not be THE first, but in my heart it is the first true sign of spring. Its leaves emerge from the ground in small rolled stems so sharp that they pierce the forest litter. Once these leaves are exposed to the sun, they unfurl and beautifully carpet the forest floor.

Photo : nickjad

Every year, inevitably, the question comes up, “is this wild garlic?”


I know, we’d all like to find a gigantic talus of wild garlic this early in the year. But no, it’s not wild garlic. In fact, the American wild garlic (Erythronium americanum), as well as its European cousin the dog’s tooth garlic (Erythronium dens-canis) are very easy to recognize because of the purple spots on their leaves. Depending on the exposure to the sun or the growing period, they can be of a darker or lighter color, but they are indeed characteristic. In comparison, wild garlic is a beautiful uniform soft green and the leaves are larger.

Notice the spots.Photo : irisarno

Another way to identify the erythrone is its flower. This one is sadly turned towards the ground, but it is beautiful! The dandelion yellow color in America, and dark lilac in Europe, is a call to summer. So soon after winter, I don’t know about you, but in Canada, we NEED it. Lean in to see the flowers from the front. It’s worth it!

Above all, don’t pick the flowers: they are a vital springtime source of food for many insects!

Anericanum. Photo : The Cosmonaut
Dens-canis. Photo : SpeedyGonsales

What Can Be Eaten

Two things are edible on this plant: the leaves and the bulbs.

Two things are disappointing about this plant: the leaves and the bulbs!

(I think I’m funny! Hihi)

In fact, the leaves, in my opinion, taste awful. They taste like sweet soap… I know, not very tasty. They can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach, but frankly, I have tried everything and I am unable to appreciate the taste of erythrone leaves.

But that doesn’t stop me from trying it again every year… After all, it’s my first sign of spring! Happy, in my forest, I taste a leaf, then I come back home, unhappy, with empty hands and a bad taste in my mouth…

Why am I telling you about it then? Because I am curious to hear your opinion!

Try it: raw, sautéed in butter, boiled… I want to hear you and see your faces of disappointment!

As for the bulbs, they are quite small and very rich in starch. It’s a bit like a potato. They were used for a long time in Asia to thicken sauces, but they have since been replaced by potato starch, which is less expensive and more accessible.

Bulbs of the species dens-canis. Photo : Meneerke bloem

I confess I’m not a fan of wild root picking for several reasons. It’s difficult (at least, at my place, no way to stick a shovel somewhere with all the rocks in the ground), it destroys the forest soil and damages the roots of the plants around, and on top of that, the harvest is often meager. Honestly, between a garden carrot, or a wild carrot, I won’t even try the wild one. The goal is not to give ourselves more trouble, right? We’re lazy!

So all that to say, I’ve never tried trout lily bulbs. I might try one or two out of curiosity, but far be it from me to make a gratin dauphinois with erythrone. If you want to try it anyway, you should know that it can be cooked like a potato.

Responsible Harvesting

I know that you are a very nature-friendly community, so I will take the liberty of adding to my columns a point on how to harvest the plant in a nature-friendly way. This is even more important if you want to harvest every year: you have to take care of your tillers!

Trout lily has only two leaves. The plant does not have time to make more leaves since it disappears as soon as surrounding trees block the light supply. For this reason, it is very important to pick only one leaf per plant, otherwise the plant could die.

Leave the flowers to the insects, I have said it before, I will say it again!

The European species has a protected status. Be even more vigilant and make sure you are allowed to pick this plant in your area.

That concludes the first ever In Mother Nature’s Garden column. I know, I know, it’s a little disappointing that this one isn’t THE best plant in the garden, but think of it as an opportunity to discover, familiarize yourself with, and exercise your eye for poking around in this huge wild garden.

The next ones will be, I promise you, real delicious plants and/or with health benefits! See you soon!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

2 comments on “In Mother Nature’s Garden: The Trout Lily

  1. Wow, what a pretty flower! Thank you for sharing this.

  2. marianwhit

    Ugh. First TRY to grow it and then harvest it from your own space. You will realize that this plant has very specific needs, and grows VERY slowly, and you are going to promote collecting it to how many people here? There are very few known patches of this anywhere near where I live in Cape Breton. Maybe because the Mother Earth News and Harrowsmith promotion of native plants for food and profit in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the decimation of their numbers? So far I have managed to research THIRTY SIX challenges to native wild plants…most of them caused by humans. Why oh why would you promote this? Get them to eat introduced “naturalized” and invasive plants instead! They maybe we (and other native animals that need them) can have the wild native ones for the future…and an emergency food supply, but none of us is that hungry. I am at least glad you did not like the taste, but you try again every year anyway?

    Look in to the complexity of making more plants for the species you recommend, and hopefully develop more of a conscience. “Out there” is often someone else’s property, or protected land, and accounts of plant poaching and collecting to extinction abound. At this time of year one sees angry “no collecting” signs in some of the most beautiful and ecologically functional areas we have left. Where I live in Nova Scotia, clear cutting and agriculture have left us few enough of our ephemerals. Let’s not strip the last ones out, but learn to grow, propagate, and steward them in our gardens, isn’t this a gardening group, about growing, not obliterating plants? There is a reason they are not often sold in nurseries, because they are hard to grow and not profitable or people don’t want to pay the actual cost. That alone should be instructive.

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