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Red Trillium Seeds Being Dispersed By Ants

9-10-15 red trillium fruit and seeds  092The flower of Red Trillium (Trillium erectum), also known as Stinking Benjamin and Wake Robin, is familiar to many, as it is one of our more common spring ephemerals. The three reddish-maroon (some populations have white, yellow-green, or paler red) petals of its flower are colored and smell faintly like rotten meat. Lacking nectar, these flowers rely on deception to bring in pollinators which are primarily flies and beetles that are typically attracted to dead animals.

Once a Red Trillium flower is pollinated, the Hershey Kiss-shaped red fruit begins to develop. The seeds of Red Trillium have oily appendages called “elaiosomes” which attract a number of insects, particularly ants. These elaiosomes (also called “ant snacks”) contain lipids and protein highly sought after by ants. The ants carry the seeds down into their underground tunnels where they feed the elaiosomes to their larvae and dispose of the seeds in their compost pile. Here they they put their droppings, or frass, as well as dead ants. Conditions for germination are ideal in such a spot, and, in fact, research shows a greater germination rate for seeds with elaiosomes than those without them.

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6 responses

  1. Just checking… Following the logic of your post this morning, I thought you were going to tell us that seeds WITHOUT elaiosomes (e.g., those that have been harvested and munched on by ants) have better germination rates, which would imply some symbiotic relationship between ants and trillium. If seeds with intact elaiosomes have better germination rates, there’s no benefit to trillium of the ants eating the elaiosomes, unless it’s the fact that they are essentially “planted” in nice compost piles underground.

    Would you please confirm which has higher germination rates, seeds with or without elaiosomes?

    By the way, I love your blog! It’s lovely to start the day with a little bit of nature, even in electronic form.

    September 10, 2015 at 8:54 am

    • What I meant was that seeds that have elaiosomes when they are first formed have a better germination rate than seeds that never have elaiosomes. After removing the elaiosomes, the ants essentially “plant” the seeds in a spot that is very conducive to germination, i.e. lots of fertilizer- it is a win-win situation for both plant and ant!

      September 10, 2015 at 9:05 am

  2. Marvelous information! It is lovely to start the day with a fascinating “nature sound-bite,” and it’s equally awesome to come across such basic and profound new information after having walked among the trilliums for over seven decades all ready…

    September 10, 2015 at 9:24 am

    • Marilyn

      I couldn’t have said it better (than Luane)!

      September 10, 2015 at 12:14 pm

  3. I’ll have to see if I can find some fruiting – we have many trillium in our woods.

    September 10, 2015 at 7:23 pm

  4. Love this! When creating the lesson plan on seed dispersal for my students, I focused on the Trillium Flower found in our neck of the woods. For each lesson, I wrote a song that went along with it. After the 10-week “Wonders of Nature” course, I decided to record all the songs and my debut album “Can You Feel It” was born. Would love to share the song “Waltz of Trillium and Ant” with you :

    May 19, 2020 at 5:19 pm

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