Toadshades of the Santa Cruz Mountains

By: Ray Collett

Ray Collett is the founder and director emeritus of the Arboretum at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he…

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Trillium chloropetalum. A clump with soft pink flowers, accompanied by a typical companion, western sword fern (Polystichum munitum). Author’s photographs

Trillium chloropetalum. A clump with soft pink flowers, accompanied by a typical companion, western sword fern (Polystichum munitum). Author’s photographs

…robust plants native to soil muddy in spring, moist in summer. Their green leaves are darkly marbled; flowers are sessile, with upright, elongate petals that form a kind of three-column cloister on a leafy plaza—not a flowery arrangement, but a striking one.

George Schenk, The Complete Shade Gardener

The group of Trillium species known as toadshades could well be the most American of all plants—the widest ranging of all American endemics, native to more states (twenty-nine of them) than any other plant group confined to the United States. Toadshades are native in Texas, California, Washington, Wisconsin, New York, and Florida, but they never venture across the international boundaries of those states. (On the other hand, pedicillate trilliums, or wake robins, which bear a length of stem between foliage and flower, are part of the native flora of extensive regions of the Northern Hemisphere, specifically in the United States, southern Canada, and the Orient.)

Trillium chloropetalum. Maroon stamens contrast with slender, leaf-green petals.

Trillium chloropetalum. Maroon stamens contrast with slender, leaf-green petals.

Toadshades acquired their lamentably earthy name early in eastern American history, when there were plenty of toads to shade. Perhaps toads benefited from insect meals, which the plants attracted. The name might allude to the often mottled coloring of their leaves. Toadshades can also be called “sessile trilliums,” but that attempt at a name is somewhat more than a mouthful, scarcely fancier, and no more clear, except to the trained botanist.

Two distinctly different kinds of toadshades occur in the Far West. One kind is represented by the little-known Trillium petiolatum, which ranges sporadically in drier country from near Wenatchee, Washington, to northern Idaho and southward into the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Its leaves are distinct from other trilliums in having a pronounced petiole that broadens into a roundish blade. The other is a group, consisting of several taxa (T. albidum, T. angustipetalum, T. chloropetalum, T. kurabayashii, T. parviflorum, and their variants), ranging from near Puget Sound southward to near Santa Maria, California. Much of the desirable horticultural variability occurs in just the Santa Cruz Mountains, and much of the threat to the continued existence of many beautiful forms focuses there.

Toadshades take years to grow, requiring seemingly forever to reach the status of garden heirlooms. Yet, following a winter of rain, one hundred percent germination can be expected in a wide variety of potting media, by harvesting seeds a few days before the finishing touches of maturity (namely dormancy) and planting them immediately.

Toadshades from the Santa Cruz Mountains are far more than toadshades, just as poppies from Flanders are far more than poppies. Toadshades from the Santa Cruz Mountains are features of our natural heritage, living art, and garden-worthy. They help tell a story about our human condition. Silently and scarcely mourned, toadshades are disappearing from the Santa Cruz Mountains, precisely where, from these several points of view, such a tragedy should never happen.

Trillium chloropetalum. Toadshade sepals, particularly in central California, tend to serve an ornamental function; in exceptional cases, they can be as brilliantly colored as the petals. Sepals vary also in shape and in the manner in which they are displayed.

Trillium chloropetalum. Toadshade sepals, particularly in central California, tend to serve an ornamental function; in exceptional cases, they can be as brilliantly colored as the petals. Sepals vary also in shape and in the manner in which they are displayed.

Toadshade Country

The Santa Cruz Mountains extend roughly from the Golden Gate southward to the vicinity of Salinas. They form the peninsula separating San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean; on their eastern flank lies Silicon Valley. At their northern end, they diminish to become the hills of San Francisco, just before disappearing beneath the Golden Gate. One hundred miles to the south, they drop again to near sea level, before ultimately slipping beneath the valley through which the Salinas River carves its way to the Pacific.

There, on a piece of ground that is nearly as isolated as an island, toadshades (mostly Trillium chloropetalum) grow in scattered, moist, shaded areas near streams or seeps and in innumerable, tiny, moist islands near or beneath tall ridge-top trees that drip in summer fogs.

There, in islands on almost an island, toadshades cannot help but be at risk of disappearing when the climate, macro or micro, is pushed by the hand of man. Chances are poor, but a few may escape to favorable climes, through the downhill rolling of their nearly round seeds and by utilizing the mandibles of swimming ants to disperse to new territory.

The Santa Cruz Mountains are where transportation, communication, research, education, green (conservational) spirit, and much else are at their epochal best. Hewlett-Packard is there, and Apple Computer, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and Google, and, as well, Stanford, Santa Clara, San Jose State, San Francisco State, and University of California, Santa Cruz. Yet, vigor, creativity, acumen, and good intentions can take their toll on the natural world around us.

Trillium chloropetalum. Though maroon is a common color in California toadshades, clearer shades of purple and magenta are perhaps confined to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Trillium chloropetalum. Though maroon is a common color in California toadshades, clearer shades of purple and magenta are perhaps confined to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Toadshades Facing the Onslaught

I came to the conclusion, several years ago, that, at the very least, some manner of photographic record should exist, establishing that such wonderful wildflowers as toadshades once grew in the Santa Cruz Mountains—and actually persisted well into modern times. Thus, I embarked on an internet appeal, advertising for knowledge of still existing and beautiful forms. In my posting, I included a few pictures that I had already taken.

The result was not what I had expected or desired. New information did not come in, but rather exclamations from all over the world: You must have the most beautiful flowers in your country! But we have never heard of that place or of them!

Yes, the Santa Cruz Mountains are a place. And they are not quite the place where one might expect such flowers to be disappearing in silence. Yet, if you are besmirched by a touch of cynicism, believing that coins have more than one side, and ironies are necessary, that is perhaps exactly what you would expect.

Toadshades do have special guardians in parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Poison oak and steep slopes strongly affect who goes where. Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) often grows so thick that it blocks the view, and it is a dreadful, weak-wooded plant. (If you grab hold of it, with the intent of leveraging yourself up or down, it breaks off and sap runs out, quickly turning you and your clothing forever black.) Rotten logs are all that bridge some chasms, and parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains are beyond the reach of the law. People growing marijuana there are fiercely protective of their crop and resentful of snitches and poachers. The advantage goes to the very young trespasser and the white-haired elderly, for they do not appear threatening.

Still, some of the most striking forms of toadshades do live on, at the moment, where the law holds sway in dedicated open space and parklands, despite encroaching dark forest and the near absence of fire that might maintain the open but shady habitats that are the toadshade’s preference. They persist, perilously, within the reach of suburban vinca, concrete, shopping centers, tennis courts, swimming pools, college campuses, parking lots, semi-domesticated deer herds, and golf courses.

Despite, or perhaps because of, erudition and superb research backgrounds, many of the millions of residents in and near the Santa Cruz Mountains seldom look around or track down the source of an odor. It does not occur to them to look or sniff. Most have never seen a toadshade, and few would connect the faint, sweet scent with these beautiful, but understated flowers.

Trillium chloropetalum. Throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains can be found oddly colored flowers, such as greenish cream with a pink picotee

Trillium chloropetalum. Throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains can be found oddly colored flowers, such as greenish cream with a pink picotee

The Future

What will people do? They will not hurt hungry, full-grown deer, let alone little fawns, and they presently cannot control the smothering spread of Vinca major or burn overly dense suburban woodlands. And, people require more space every year.

People could grow toadshades in gardens. Nurseries can produce them. Perhaps people can be persuaded to pay a bundle for a certified, nursery-grown heirloom, which has taken forever to grow to saleable size.

A superb collection was established in the last century by Gerda Isenberg, founder of Yerba Buena Nursery, one of the original California native plant nurseries—which still survives in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Collections could also be maintained in public gardens.

Grave risks can be perceived in all directions. Neither nurseries nor public gardens are built on firm financial ground. Human interference with the natural gene pool will be feared and cursed.

Yet toadshades are the epitome of what belongs in gardens, which are the most complex of the art forms, subject to crashes and crazes, dedicated both to awareness and oblivion—and joy, form, and memories. And could it be more wonderful and full of meaning that chartreuse, magenta, or black toadshades, often with extravagant spots (and sometimes extremely subtle), still hang out on this earth, hidden in poison oak patches, at the very back door to Google?

We hope not, but it may come true, that toadshades survive only in gardens, lonely for toads and waving their incredible leaves to give meaning.

Trillium chloropetalum. In southwestern Santa Cruz County, toadshades are often strangely colored, tending to appear in hues ranging from milk chocolate to dark coffee, sometimes with lime-colored petal bases.

Trillium chloropetalum. In southwestern Santa Cruz County, toadshades are often strangely colored, tending to appear in hues ranging from milk chocolate to dark coffee, sometimes with lime-colored petal bases.


Western Toadshade Resource Guide

Although highly respected woodland plants, [trilliums] are not yet much used in gardens. Members of this genus are refined and tidy, except for the short period in late summer when they die down.

Giant trillium (Trillium chloropetalum) may be propagated from seed which requires five to seven years to produce a mature rootstock. Seed should be planted as soon as ripe, and kept moist and shaded until germination occurs. Alternate freezing and thawing of seed can aid in its germination. Under favorable conditions of shade and moisture, volunteer seedlings may appear; for the first few years these will be bright green, shiny, single leaves. When nearing the flowering stage, three small, but typical leaves will occur at the top of the stalk. Where plants are growing satisfactorily the rootstock may increase naturally, and old clumps may have two or three stems each season. Giant trillium reauires rich, humusy, well-drained soil and will tolerate water all through the year. Filtered shade, especially in the afternoon, and the partial protection of shrubs will keep them flourishing.

A natural or man-made woodland is the perfect setting for the giant trillium, but I have seen them used at the edge of a shaded lawn amid a mat of white violets. They are also handsome in a shade border with wild irises, snow drops, and red baneberry (Actaea rubra subsp. arguta).

(Adapted from Marjorie G Schmidt, Growing California Native Plants, University of California Press, 1980.)


For Further Reading

Case, Frecerick W Jr and Roberta Case. 1997. Trilliums. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Jacobs, Don L and Rob L Jacobs. 1997. Trilliums in Woodland and Garden: American Treasures. Decatur, GA: Eco-Gardens.

Sullivan, Dale. Western Trilliums. Pacific Horticulture, Summer 1989, Vol 50, No 2, pages 52-57.