The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.

Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States


Common Name
Toadshade &
Little Sweet Betsy


Scientific Name
Trillium sessile L. &
Trillium cuneatum Raf.


Plant Family
Lily (Liliaceae)
New - Bunchflower (Melanthiaceae)

Garden Location


Prime Season



Toadshade is also called Sessile Trillium and Toad Trillium. Little Sweet Betsy is also called Large Toadshade and Whip-poor-will Flower. Toadshade and Little Sweet Betsy are quite similar in appearance but differ in size.

Stems are round, up to 10 inches tall in T. sessile, higher in T. cuneatum, smooth and green to reddish green - the base more reddish. The stem - a scape- is an above ground portion of the underground rhizome.

Leaves: In the true trilliums the leaf like parts are actually bracts just below the flower base. They are of course much larger than the normal bract found on plants, but they are equipped to fulfill the function of a leaf. On Toadshade and Sweet Betsy the stalkless bracts usually have a mottled appearance from different shades of green. The mottling can be quite pronounced as these photos show, or to a lesser degree. The bracts are very soft and flexible with a paler underside due to fine surface hair.

Flowers are solitary and stalkless, with 3 maroon petals that remain erect until they decay. The 3 sepals are green with purplish margins or more purple throughout, lance shaped and are at first erect, then lie downward to the top of the bracts. Variations in the plants can result in petals of various colors, T. cuneatum having the widest range of color including clear green, bronze and yellow.

In Toadshade (T. sessile) the petals of the flower are up to 1.5 inches high. The flower has 6 stamens that have reddish-purple filaments with gray-purple anthers, but the stamens are mostly hidden by the upright petals. Petal bases are more narrowed. The ovary is greenish-white at the base and more purplish at the top. It is composed of 3 united carpels forming a globose 6-angled shape. The 3 stigmas of the style are erect, purple, and the tips diverge or recurve.

In Little Sweet Betsy, T. cuneatum, the differences are: The flowers are taller - up to 3 inches high; petal bases are wedge shaped; the filaments of the stamens are more brownish purple; the ovary is maroon and less distinctly 6-angled and the stigmas are only slightly diverged or spreading.

The fruit of both is a 6-angled 3 cell capsule, pulpy, not juicy, that contains the seeds. The capsule is usually greenish with some purple tones depending on the species. The capsule is Sweet Betsy is the larger, being 2 x 1-1.5 cm in size. Trilliums are tedious to start from seed as they must have a cold moist period, followed by a warm moist period, followed by another cold moist period, each period of at least 60 to 90 days. Planted in soil, they will thus germinate in the 2nd Spring. Then they will take 3 to 5 years before they flower.

Other Visual Comparisons: One way to see the difference between the two species is the size of the bracts and size of the flower. Toadshade bracts are up to 3 inches long with a base that tapers and then connects to the stem with no appearance of a stalk; and the erect flower petals are up to 1.5 inches high. Little Sweet Betsy has bracts up to 6 inches long with a wedge-shaped base that almost forms a stalk; and the flower petals can be up to 3 inches high. There are also more detailed differences in the petals, stamens - particularly the anther sacs - and in the sepals. Toadshade flowers are said to have a pungent odor and while Sweet Betsy may also have such an odor, it is frequently pleasant and faintly spicy. More precise details can be found in Flora of North America (Ref. #W7).


Habitat: These plants grow from horizontal thick and fleshy rhizomes and will slowly spread if undisturbed. They grow best in somewhat moist soil in light shade or the dappled sun of the woodland before early summer. They do not transplant well. The plant dies back to dormancy by mid summer.

Names: The genus name Trillium, is derived from the Latin trilix, meaning 'triple' and referring to the flowers having parts of three. The species name of Toadshade, sessile, is Latin referencing "low sitting" which refers to the stalkless flower sitting atop the leaves (the bracts) of Toadshade, which is similar to Sweet Betsy but cuneatum has been applied there, which is also Latin, meaning 'tapering to a wedge shape', which is the shape of the base of the flower petals of Sweet Betsy whereas those of Toadshade are narrowed, but not narrow enough to be called "clawed."

The author names for the plant classifications: 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. He published T. sessile in 1753. T. cuneatum was published by ‘Raf.’ who is Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, (1783-1840), European polymath who traveled in the United States, lived here many years, collected specimens, and published over 6,700 binomial names for plants, this species published in 1840 in Autikon Botanikon. He applied to be botanist on the Lewis & Clark expedition but Jefferson turned him down in favor of training Lewis to act as botanist and saving the expense on another person.

The alternate common name of Whip-poor-will flower has been applied to many Trillium species, apparently because the Trilliums tend to bloom during the time that Whip-poor-will birds do a lot of singing. 'Toadshade' is somewhat self explanatory.

As to the name Sweet Betsy, it appears (no confirming evidence here) that this Trillium picked up that name (more correctly "Little" Sweet Betsy) for its resemblence to the shrub Calycanthus floridus, (Eastern Sweetshrub) which is known as "Sweet Betsy" and has an erect flower of similar color with some petals erect and rising above a group of green leaves.

New Family: There is a movement among botanists to segregate the Trilliums and a few other genera out of the Liliaceae Family and into the Melanthiaceae. The U of M Herbarium has made this change on their Minnesota checklist but Flora of North America has not yet published this.

Comparisons: Sometimes the common name Toadshade is seen applied to another trillium, T. recurvatum Beck, but that is considered a distinct plant and should be called Prairie Trillium whose bracts are distinctively on 1/2 to 1 inch stalks. The flower of Prairie Trillium is similar, usually not stalked, but the petals spread outward and then curve inward to touch at the tips and because of the bract stalks, the sepals hang downward. A further complication is that the Yellow Trillium, T. luteum, looks very similar to T. cuneatum except that the petals are yellowish-green.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.

Toadshade flw Sweet Betsy flower

Above and below: The flowers and leaves of both species look similar. The difference is in size. Toadshade (1st photo above and below) has flowers up to 1.5 inches high and bracts up to 3 inches long. This example has a 5/8 inch flower and 2 - 2-1/2 inch bracts. Whereas, Little Sweet Betsy (2nd photo above and large photos below) has flowers up to 3 inches high and bracts up to 6 inches long. Note the purple edging on the sepals of both species. Below - 2nd photo - A group of Toadshade prior to flower maturity.

Toadshade plant group of plants - Toadshade

Below: The group of Toadshade shown above in flower.

Toadshade group in flower

Below: 1st photo - The stems are green to reddish, typically reddish as the base and green under the bracts. 2nd photo - The underside of the leaf shows the fine vein pattern an the paler color due to very fine hair.

Toadshade stems Sweet Betsy leaf underside

Below: Toadshade - with several of the stamens and the diverging 3 tips of stigmas visible.

Toadshade stamens

Below: Examples of Little Sweet Betsy.

Sweet BetsySweet Betsy


Notes: Of the two Trilliums covered here only T. sessile (Toadshade) was listed on Martha Crone's 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time. She had also noted it in bloom back in 1939 and planted it in 1946 and '56. Eloise Butler had first planted it in Oct. 1920 with plants sourced from Gillett's Nursery in Southwick, MA. T. cuneatum arrived later. Cary George reported planting it in 1993. Neither are native to Minnesota but are native to a number of states east and in the SE of the US. They are not found in Canada. Four Trilliums are considered native to Minnesota: T. cernuum, T. flexipes, T. grandiflorum and T. nivale.

Toadshade Lore: In Native lore the boiled root is said to have been used by women as a love potion. A portion was dropped into the food of the desired man and you waited for the results. There is a hilarious story in Laura Martin's book (Ref. #25) of a young girl desiring the Chief's son. She boils the root but on the way to put it in the food of the young man, she trips, and the root falls in the food of an old ugly fellow. When he eats the food he subsequently follows the girl around camp begging her to marry him.

Eloise Butler Wrote: "Trilliums are closely related to the lilies. All have a thick underground stem, bearing a single aerial stem, which supports a whorl of three large leaves varying somewhat in size and shape in different species. Above the leaf whorl arises the lovely flower, with or without a stalk; erect or drooping; white, red, purple or pink striped, according to the species. The flower is also on the plan of three green sepals, three colored petals, six stamens in two rows and one pistil made up of three united carpels. The name trillium probably comes from the three leaves. The plant has a number of local names - wake robin, bath flower and “way down east.” Published May 21, 1911, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. Read article.

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

graphicIdentification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.