How to Grow and Care for White Trout Lily (Dogtooth Violet)

Trout Lily Erythronium albidum

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The Erythronium genus contains several dozen wildflower species, native mostly to North America. They are known collectively as "trout lilies" or "dogtooth violets"—though "trout lily" is the more accurate name, as these are true lilies, not violets. One of these species, Erythronium albidum, is known as white trout lily or white dogtooth violet. It is native to shady woodland areas in the central and eastern United States.

White trout lily (white dogtooth violet) has elliptical, lance-shaped basal leaves and produces a small bell-shaped white flower that lasts for about two weeks in spring. The leaves are gray-green, mottled with brown or red—the leaves are said to resemble the skin of a trout. This plant grows from a tiny corm that gradually spreads to produce offset plants that form new corms. Over time, white trout lily will form dense colonies that make a good ground cover for shady areas. Trout lily is well-loved by bees for its rich supply of nectar and is an important pollinator food. But gardeners interested in a spectacular show might be disappointed in white trout lily. It is a rather subtle plant that appeals mostly to native plant and wildflower enthusiasts.

White trout lily is planted from small corms in the fall. It can take as long as six years for new plants to reach flowering maturity.

Common Name White trout lily, white dogtooth lily, adder's tongue
Botanical Name Erythronium albidum
Family Liliaceae
Plant Type Herbaceous, perennial
Mature Size 6–12 in.tall, 3–6 in. wide
Sun Exposure Partial, shade
Soil Type Moist
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 3a–8a (USDA)
Native Areas North America

White Trout Lily Care

As a spring ephemeral that goes dormant in summer and autumn, white trout lily is useful for underplanting larger late-season shade perennials like hostas, bleeding hearts, or columbines.

Plant the corms two to three inches deep and four to six inches apart, in a location where they can gradually spread and naturalize. The pointed side of the corms should face down. As the plants develop, weeding should be done carefully to avoid damaging the offset shoots that will form new corms. After the foliage dies back in the summer, leave it in place as a natural mulch through the winter.

Though white trout lily is readily found in native woodland areas, relocating them is not a good idea; it can disturb the ecosystem and the plants often don't do well outside their native habitat. However, many gardeners want to have native plants in their gardens to help support the local wildlife, and the white trout lily is no exception. But it's best to obtain your plants from a reputable nursery rather than kidnapping them from the wild.

Closeup of Trout Lily Erythronium albidum

mtruchon / Getty Images

Closeup of Trout Lily Erythronium albidum

TonyBaggett / Getty Images

Light

The white trout lily thrives with dappled sunlight or partial shade. Imagine the kind of light at the edge of a woodland, or in a forest clearing; this is the perfect light situation.

Soil

The ideal soil environment for white trout lily is loose, humus-rich, moist soil that mimics the woodland floors where they flourish. Mulching the bulbs over the winter with shredded leaves and a bit of pine straw can also be beneficial. Planting the bulbs beneath deciduous trees is also a good plan for creating a friendly environment for them. White trout lily likes a fairly neutral soil, pH 6.8 to 7.2. This is somewhat different than other species of trout lily, which prefer more acidic soil.

Water

White trout lily, like other species in the genus, needs consistent moisture. If growing in your garden, try not to let them dry out, and make sure to water regularly in times of drought. Enhance soil moisture by planting in a suitably shady location, and covering the ground with some natural mulch, like pine bark.

Fertilizer

Like most native wildflowers, this plant does not need fertilizer, provided it is growing in rich, humusy soil. At most, they may appreciate a topdressing of compost in spring.

Types of Trout Lily

Trout lily does not have any widely available named cultivars, but the Erythonium genus does include other species that are collectively known as trout lilies or dogtooth violets. Among those that are often cultivated for garden use:

  • Erythronium americanum (yellow trout lily or yellow dogtooth violet) is a yellow-flowering species that is also native to the eastern U.S. It is hardy in zones 3 to 8 and is slightly more cold-hardy than white trout lily but otherwise has the same cultural needs.
  • Erythonium dens-canis (dogtooth violet) is the only imported plant—it is a native of southern Europe. Its rosy violet flowers bloom in late spring; it is hardy in zones 3 to 8. Among the popular named cultivars: 'Lilac Wonder', 'Pink Perfection', and 'Purple King'.
  • Erythonium grandiflora (yellow glacier lily) grows to nearly two feet and is native to the Northwest U.S. Blooming in late spring, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. It lacks the mottled leaves found in the other species.
  • Erythronium revolutum (pink fawn lily or mahogany fawn lily) has pink flowers and is native to the Pacific coast. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
  • 'Pagota' is a hybrid form with bright yellow flowers. This plant is a cross between California species E. tuolumnense and E. californicum ‘White Beauty’. It is hardy to zone 5.

Pruning

This spring ephemeral needs no pruning; in fact, leaving the leaves intact after the flower petals fall feeds the bulb for the following spring's flower formation. Deadheading is not necessary, either.

Propagating White Trout Lily

Trout lilies are very easy to propagate by dividing root clumps and replanting the corms. Fall is the best time to do this:

  1. Use a shovel or spade to carefully dig up the entire root clump.
  2. Separate the tiny corms and brush away dirt. Discard any corms that are soft or desiccated.
  3. Replant the corms two to three inches deep and four to six inches apart, with the pointed end facing down.

Individual offsets can also be carefully dug up and transplanted to new locations, without disturbing the main clump.

How to Grow Trout Lily From Seed

This is a slow process, taking as much as three to five years to produce flowering plants, so seed propagation is rarely done. If you want to try it, sow collected seeds in a mixture of gritty compost blended with extra compost or peat moss. Keep the potted seeds in a shady location and wait a full year; the seeds need a frost to germinate. As the seeds sprout, move the entire pot to the location where you will eventually plant them. Let the potted seedlings grow in that location for another full year. Once the root clump fills the pot, it can then be planted in the ground.

Overwintering

Allow leaf debris to remain over the colony for the winter; you can also add more mulch if you wish. Otherwise, these plants require no special winter protection.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

White trout lily is a very hardy plant that is virtually disease-free and also deer-resistant. Because they do like moist soil, slugs may be an issue, but if found, just remove them by hand.

How to Get White Trout Lily to Bloom

Do not expect profuse blooming with these plants. A single blossom per plant, emerging in early spring and lasting for up to two weeks, is the most you can expect. And in an established colony, it is quite common for some plants to withhold blossoms for some years. Further, it can take new plants up to six years before they are mature enough to bloom.

If a formerly productive colony begins to show reduced blooming, it likely means the clump is becoming overgrown, indicating that it's time to lift and divide the corms.

Overly compacted soils can also cause trout lilies to stop blooming, such as if too much foot traffic compresses the ground over time. The solution in these instances is to loosen the soil by blending in compost or another organic amendment when you lift and divide the clump.

Common Problems With White Trout Lily

The most common complaint about trout lily isn't really a problem, but merely its normal growth habit: These plants do not bloom with profusion, and as spring ephemerals, they quickly decline after blooming, leaving bare spots in the garden.

The best solution is to plant trout lilies in an area where their natural growth habit is not a problem, such as woodland areas mixed with other spring bulbs and shade-loving perennials that can cover the vacated areas with foliage after the trout lilies fade. Large-leafed hostas, for example, can extend their leaves to fill in bare areas after the trout lilies are done for the year. You'll need to take care, however, not to allow the other perennials to expand so much that they force out the trout lilies entirely.

FAQ
  • How long does white trout lily live?

    If the clumps are lifted and divided every few years to keep them vibrant, you can keep the colony growing almost indefinitely. While individual corms may gradually fade, new offsets can keep a colony growing and expanding for many decades.

  • Is white trout lily edible?

    Unlike yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), white trout lily does not have a history of use as an edible plant. However, it does have a history of medicinal use as a treatment for gout and other ailments. Improper consumption, however, can nausea and vomiting, so eating these plants is not recommended.

  • How do I use this plant in the landscape?

    Like other trout lilies, this plant is best suited for shady naturalized woodland gardens. Shady ponds and stream banks are also good places for trout lilies.

Article Sources
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  1. Erythronium albidum. University of Texas/Austin Plant Database

  2. Erythronium albidum. University of Texas at Austin Plant Database.

  3. Erythronium americanum. North Carolina State University Plant Toolbox

  4. Erythronium 'Pagoda'. North Carolina State Extension Toolbox

  5. Bird, Richard. The Propagation of Hardy Perennials. Batsford Ltd. Publishing, 1994