How to Grow and Care for Yellow Trout Lily

Dogtooth violet flowers with yellow recurved petals on a thin stem above large leaves

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is a native North American woodland plant with nodding yellow flowers that appear between March and May. It’s a sporadic, ephemeral bloomer—not all plants bloom every spring, and the plants wither and fade away entirely as summer arrives. But even if the blooms aren't plentiful and dramatic, the mottled foliage that resembles the markings of a brook trout (hence the common name) make trout lily an attractive seasonal groundcover. Trout lily makes up for its sporadic bloom by being long-lasting and spreading into large colonies over time. It is also a good addition to pollinator gardens, as it attracts mining bees (Andrena erythronii) that pollinate other spring-flowering bulbs, ornamentals, trees, and shrubs.

Yellow trout lily is normally planted from corms in the late summer, or by seeds sown in late spring or early summer. It is a relatively slow-growing plant; root divisions may not flower until their second year, and seedlings can take as much as five or six years before they flower.

Common Name Erythronium americanum
Botanial Name Yellow trout lily, yellow dogtooth violet, yellow adder's tongue
Family Liliaceae
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 4–8 in. tall, wide
Sun Exposure Partial, full shade
Soil Type Moist, humusy, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic (below 6.8)
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones 3–8 (USDA)
Native Area Eastern North America

Yellow Trout Lily Care


The elongated corms of the yellow trout lily, like other garden lilies, lack a hard outer skin, which makes them prone to drying out. Therefore it’s important to plant the corms as soon as you buy them or divide existing plants. The curved, elongated shape of the corms is the source of the other common name for this plant—dogtooth violet.

Trout lily is best planted in a location where it can spread and naturalize. Plant them about 5 inches deep and 2 to 4 inches apart for a colony effect. When weeding around it, make sure not to damage the offset corms that develop, as these are the source of new plants. Many ants in or around the plants are a welcome sign because trout lily has a symbiotic relationship with ants—they spread the seeds and help the plant naturalize. After the foliage dies back in the summer, leave it in place as a natural mulch all through the winter.

Dogtooth violet flowers with yellow recurved petals on thin stems closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Dogtooth violet flowers with pale yellow recurved flowers and bud on thin stems surrounded by large leaves

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Dogtooth voilet with a yellow bud on a thin stem and flower with yellow recurved petals closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Trout lily flower with small yellow petals held by hand closeup

The Spruce / Autumn Wood

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) has a single, nodding flower
Trout lily has a single, nodding flower Ed Reschke / Getty Images
The mottled leaves resembling a brook trout gave trout lily its name
The mottled leaves resembling a brook trout gave trout lily its name bkkm / Getty Images 

Light

The best place to grow trout lily is an east-facing location with morning sun. In its native habitat, trout lily grows underneath deciduous trees such as oaks and maples. In the early spring, before the trees have leaved out, this setting provides ample sunlight, which the plants need to thrive and bloom. Later, during the summer, an ideal site has dappled shade to protect the plant from the hot midday and afternoon sun.

Soil

Trout lily can grow in any light, moist soil that is rich in humus, similar to the soil in its native habitat. Dense garden soils should be heavily amended with compost or peat moss to create an ideal environment. Soil pH should be on the acidic side, below 6.8.

Water

The plant needs moisture during its spring growing period, about 1 inch of water per week from rain or irrigation. In the summer, after trout lily has gone into dormancy, it requires drier conditions, and no watering is needed.

Temperature and Humidity

Yellow trout lily is hardy in zones 3 to 8, easily surviving temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Native to forests and damp meadows, this plant handles humid conditions but will not tolerate extreme dry heat.

Fertilizer

This plant does not need extra fertilizer if it is planted in rich, humusy soil. Instead, top-dress with more organic matter each spring before the new growth starts.

Types of Trout Lily

Yellow trout lily does not have any widely available named cultivars, but the Erythonium genus includes several additional species that are collectively known as trout lilies. Among those that are often cultivated for garden use:

  • Erythonium almidum (white trout lily or white dogtooth violet) has white flowers with lavender-colored blotches. It is also native to the eastern U.S. and is hardy in zones 4 to 9.
  • Erythonium dens-canis (dogtooth violet) is a native of southern Europe. It has rosy violet flowers and blooms in late spring. It is hardy in zones 3 to 8. Several named cultivars are available, including 'Lilac Wonder', 'Pink Perfection', and 'Purple King'.
  • Erythonium grandiflora (yellow glacier lily) is a considerably taller plant, growing to nearly 2 feet. Native to the Northwest, it blooms in late spring and is hardy in zones 4 to 8. It does not have the mottled leaves seen on the other species.
  • Erythronium revolutum (pink fawn lily or mahogany fawn lily) has pink flowers on 12- to 14-inch plants. Native to the Pacific coast from Northern California to British Columbia, it is hardy in zones 5 to 8. 'Pagota' is a hybrid form with bright yellow flowers.

Propagating Trout Lily

Trout lily is very finicky to grow from seed so it’s best propagated by division of the offset corms. After several years, when the plants have grown into leafy clumps, it’s time to divide them. Here's how:

  1. In spring, mark the location of the plants so you know where to dig the bulbs in the late summer.
  2. In late summer, dig up the plants and carefully divide the offset corms from the parent corms.
  3. Replant the bulbs about 4 inches deep and mulch them well.

How to Grow Yellow Trout Lily From Seed

It can take as much as five or six years to produce mature flowering plants when propagating yellow trout lily from seeds, so it's rarely done except by developers seeking hybrids or by very serious amateurs looking to experiment. However, if you have sufficient space to develop a colony of yellow trout lilies, then you can direct sow seeds just as the seed capsules split in summer. In the initial season, no seedlings will be evident, but the following spring you will likely see the grass-like seedlings appear. But it will be at least two years before the plants are recognizable, and an additional two or three years until the plants blossom.

Potting and Repotting Yellow Trout Lily

This plant is best suited to colonizing in semi-shady woodland and meadow gardens. It is a spring ephemeral that does not lend itself well to container culture.

How to Get Yellow Trout Lily to Bloom

This plant typically produces (at most) a single drooping flower per stalk, with a bloom period that lasts about two weeks. The exact window for blooming varies depending on region, but usually falls somewhere between March and May. Not every plant will produce flowers stalks on any given year.

A colony of yellow trout lilies will generally bloom reliably if planted in humus-rich soil in a partly shady location, but the plants do not respond well to dry soils or too much sun. Flowering is always somewhat modest, so don't expect a dramatic display.

Common Problems With Yellow Trout Lily

A common complaint from gardeners unfamiliar with this plant is that it vanishes rather quickly after the flowering period is over. This is a common feature of all spring ephemerals, which leaves the gardener with the challenge of filling the empty area of the garden. This species is often planted along with ferns, summer snowflake, primroses, and other plants that enjoy shady conditions and can fill in after tout lilies have faded.

FAQ
  • How should I use this plant in the landscape?

    Yellow trout lily works best when naturalized in shady areas with moist soil. Shady areas of native plant gardens, shade gardens, woodland gardens, ponds and stream backs, and shady rock gardens are all appropriate places for yellow trout lily.

  • Can I transplant wild specimens into my garden?

    Yellow trout lily is a plentiful wildflower in the forests and damp meadows of eastern North America, especially Canada and the Northeast U.S.. But it's not a good idea to remove any wildflower from its natural habitat, and may even be illegal in some areas. Nor does yellow trout lily transplant well. If you want to add trout lily to your landscape, make sure to obtain it from a commercial nursery that follows wildflower ethics in its propagation methods.

  • How long does yellow trout lily live?

    When allowed to spread gradually in a well-suited location, a colony of yellow trout lily can survive for well more than a century. There are wild colonies thought to be more than 1,000 years old.

  • Is yellow trout lily edible?

    Yes. The corms of yellow trout lily were often cooked and eaten as a vegetable by North American Indian cultures. The corms can also be eaten raw; the taste resembles that of cucumber.

Article Sources
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  1. Clausen, Ruth Rogers, and Christopher, Thomas. Essential Perennials. Timber Press, 2014

  2. Erythronium Americanum, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

  3. Hinkley, Daniel. All About Trout Lilies, Horticulture Magazine, April 30, 2007

  4. Erythronium Americanum, Missouri Botanical Garden.

  5. Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium Americanum), Virginia Native Plant Society.