When I came upon the sea of mottled green and purple leaves with a chorus of delicate yellow flowers bowing their heads, my jaw dropped open and I felt such deep awe and wonder that I couldn’t speak. The sheer number of these flowers astounded me. With sunlight in the early spring air coming through the naked trees in the forest, these delicate beauties simply shimmered. Each flower held six yellow leaves bent back to the sun, making them appear like they were ready to dive into deep water; arms – (the stamens) – outstretched, heads down, wings flying behind with a wide-awake reverence for the Earth, and the purple tint on the back of their petals perfectly matching the coloring on their leaves. These lovelies are Trout Lilies, and only the mature seven-year-olds make a flower, one to a plant, with two leaves, and the younglings only having one leaf are gathered around them.
I felt like I was witnessing a secret gathering; old, ancient, with even older stories and grandmothers and great grandmothers leading the way. I felt honored to be with them, to sit with them, to hear their wisdom. The flowers, like a gathering of faeries or young girls dancing by the stream in pure devoted delight, a dance of reverence, greeting the spring sun and celebrating their coming of age – seven years to grow the strength to join this dance. The coloring of the mottled leaves mirrors the light on the surface of the stream they grow beside. It looks and even feels like the water is literally flowing through them, as if the stream had overflowed its banks, and left this sea of water-colored leaves behind. They are named Trout Lily because their leaves also look like the skin of a brook trout that often swims by them in the stream they live beside.
The Trout Lilies said to me: “Come dance and skip with me on the forest floor as the bees do, let my yellow radiance infuse you with delight. Come play with me in the sunlight. Then follow the deep colors in my purple spotted leaves through the door to my roots where my strength lies. There is no need to rush anything. The way to be strong is to go slowly, and to build strength and resilience a little bit at a time. That way you can weave your roots deeper and deeper, becoming stronger and unable to be uprooted. Our deepest strength is our beloved community.”
It so hard for our human mind to really comprehend the nature of community in a stand of wildflowers that grows slowly over several hundred years, most of its life underground and each plant only able to produce a single flower after seven years of growth! What is it like to wait seven years to bloom into motherhood, only to fade about 10 days later, knowing your best work is done? You were able to fly for a few days, but now your deep satisfaction comes from feeding the community and becoming seeds for the future.
A little research tells me that as trout lilies spread over the forest floor, hundreds of plants can result from a single beginning seed. All these little plants are genetically the same organism, and this group of related plants, this clone, can persist for decades or even centuries. Many 200 to 300 years old, and in one study, such colonies were found to be as old as 1,300 years!
The trout lily flowers are the mature mamas, making babies, watching over everyone. It is their time. They said “YES” to the call to procreate. I came to visit them three times before their flowers had all faded, the leaves already starting to disappear in the later spring growth. These plants are also ephemerals, like the bleeding heart, dying back to live only underground by late spring.
These seemingly small wildflowers and others like them hold the world together. If they can live in such vibrant communities on lands disturbed not so long ago, growing synergistically with the mycelium and streams and deer and people then there is hope for our own communities as well.
These communities of trout lilies are old, but they also live in a seven-year cycle. As the older plants die off and new ones are born, all part of and supporting their community, their root system – they feed off their dead and gain their wisdom and strength from their dead. They such a glorious example of nature’s enduring life cycles of deep time where the dead support and sustain the living.