Wildflowers 101: Vasey’s trillium and purple wake robin


Vasey’s trillium

Story and images by Tom Harrington

Some of the favorite wildflowers found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the trilliums, of which there are nine species that grow in the park. In this issue, let’s examine two trilliums whose blooms are often described as being maroon, red, or purple in color: Vasey’s trillium and purple wake robin.

Vasey’s trillium is the last of the trilliums to bloom (from May to early July) and is the largest trillium in the Smokies. It can be 12 to 24 inches tall, and its bloom, which hangs below the leaves (like the white nodding trillium and Catesby’s trillium), can be four inches in diameter. It is easy to miss the blooms, especially when they are amongst thick vegetation. One of the best trails for locating Vasey’s trilliums is the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail, starting around a half-mile beyond Sutton Overlook. The bloom has a rose-like fragrance.

Purple wake robin

The second trillium in this Wildflowers 101 issue is the purple wake robin. The major difference between it and Vasey’s trillium is that the maroon-red bloom is above the leaves. The plant can be 6 to 15 inches tall, and it blooms in May through early June. This trillium is also called “stinking William” and “stinking Benjamin” because of the somewhat unpleasant odor the bloom emits. One source indicates that the bloom smells like a wet dog. Another wildflower book describes the odor of the bloom as “disgustingly fishy.” Early herbalists were said to have used this plant to treat gangrene. Legend has it that the flower got its name because when it blooms it is supposed to wake up the robins.

Rarely do I see a purple wake robin in the park; however, when I have, it has been on the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail. One amazing location to find this trillium in bloom outside of the park is on the Norris Riverbluff Trail near Norris Dam. When at peak bloom, you can see many on that trail.

If you have not gotten out into the park to take advantage of wildflower viewing this year, please let me encourage you to do so as our weather moderates in the coming days and weeks. You will be glad that you did. Mark Twain was reported to have said, “Twenty years from now, you will regret more the things that you did not do than the things that you did. Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Let the wind catch your sails. Explore, dream, and discover.”