When the birds start to sing their sweet spring tunes, you’ll begin to see red trillium (Trillium erectum) start to bear its burgundy—and sometimes white—blooms in the cool, damp corners of the forest. It has three almost-heart-shaped leaves in a single whorl, three triangular petals on a single blossom and three sepals. So there’s no confusion where it got the name Trillium. That said, it’s also known commonly as bethroot or birth root for the way it’s been used historically by indigenous peoples and settlers throughout the eastern U.S.
Ancient Female Remedy
A member of the lily family, bethroot (a sort of slang for “birth root”) has been used primarily as a female medicine. It has helped with menstrual disorders, labor and childbirth, and menopause. It’s also used in a number of other treatments: hemorrhaging, asthma and chronic lung disorders, inflammation, skin irritations, tumors and ulcers. However, it’s in the world of midwifery where this forest herb has shined. In fact, Tis Mal Crow, a Cherokee and Hitchiti author, root doctor and herbalist, said Native American midwives would wear the trillium to signify their work.
The root is the part of the plant used in female medicine. It was crafted into a tea to be used by the patient. It doesn’t take much for trillium to do its work, which is a good thing because it tastes horrible (about as horrible as the flower smells). It’s an astringent, which explains its use in hemorrhages to stop bleeding—it was often employed to help stop bleeding and tone the uterus after a woman gave birth or to stop heavy blood flow during menstruation. It would also be given to women in labor to help “bring down” the baby.
Later on, after seeing it used by Native Americans, physicians adopted use of trillium in their medical practices. In the mid-1800s, it was combined with bloodroot to treat gangrene and with bugleweed for tuberculosis bleeding. Externally, the whole plant would be poulticed for snakebites and stings.
Carrying on the Trillium Tradition
Trillium still intrigues herbalists today. (It should be used with caution, though, and in small doses because of its environmental fragility.) The habitat of trillium is threatened by logging and other forestry practices, as well as soil compaction from foot traffic and ATV use. United Plant Savers, an native-plant conservation organization, includes Trillium erectum on its “at-risk” list. Several states have listed it as threatened, endangered or protected. Conservationists continue to monitor the interest in trillium in the alternative-medicine community and educate people on how to best use it.
Should you decide to harvest trillium from your forested property, pick the roots in late summer to early fall. Do so judiciously. It is a slow-growing plant. Trillium takes four to seven years just to flower. The root of a much older plant—30 to 50 years—can be quite small. Herbalist Matthew Wood recommends using it as a tea or tincture and using only very small doses: one dropper of tincture diluted in one ounce alcohol, taken in three drops, one to three times per day.
If you find yourself pulled to this root medicine, you might consider cultivating the plant in your own “forest garden.” It’s hardy up to zone 3. In their book Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals, Jeanine Davis and W. Scott Persons cover the best ways to cultivate trillium. In general, the plant is fairly safe to use, though it should go without saying, avoid using it in pregnancy unless working with an experienced practitioner.