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What is Erythronium?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 17 June 2018
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Erythronium is a genus of flowering bulbs native primarily to North America, although a few are found in parts of Europe and Asia as well. These plants are cultivated ornamentally in many regions of the world and they are also used as a source of food. The bulbs and leaves are both edible and can be seen in the cuisine of several cultures, perhaps most notably in Japan. There are an estimated 20 to 30 species in this genus, along with a number of cultivars developed for gardeners.

Common names for plants in this genus include dog's-tooth violet, fawn lily, trout lily, and adder's tongue. Erythronium is in the lily family and many of the common names reference the elongated shapes of the bulbs and leaves. The leaves are typically variegated with dark and light spots, and the flowers, produced on small stalks, come in a range of colors and have a nodding growth habit. Erythronium plants come in colors like pink and yellow and may be spotted or otherwise marked as well.

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These plants are native to woodland environments. They prefer partial shade and rich, moist soil. They are annuals, and will return year after year. Gardeners interested in cultivating Erythronium species can obtain bulbs in the fall and should plant them immediately, as they do not store well out of the ground. Adding fertilizer at the time of planting will help the bulbs develop for spring, and the bulbs should be dug up and divided every few years or they will start to become crowded.

Delicate woodland plants like Erythronium can be excellent in masses in beds, and can also be planted along borders. Because of their small size, they can be dwarfed by larger, more showy plants, and it is advisable to plant them with relatively neutral foliage like ferns so they are not overwhelmed during their blooming period. They can also be grown in containers, although it is important to monitor moisture levels to prevent the bulbs from rotting or molding in wet conditions.

Nurseries and garden supply stores can be good sources of bulbs from a variety of cultivars. It is also possible to participate in bulb exchanges with other gardeners. Gardening clubs, particularly bulb clubs, can be a good resource for trading opportunities, including both clubs in the community and organizations that meet online. Trading can provide a chance to collect rare and unusual specimens while exchanging information and ideas with other gardeners.

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