The plant takes its common name "wake-robin" by analogy with the European robin, which has a red breast heralding spring.
Trillium erectum grows to about 40 cm (16 in) in height with a spread of 30 cm (12 in), and can tolerate extreme cold in winter, surviving temperatures down to −35 °C (−31 °F).
Like all trilliums, its parts are in groups of three, with 3-petalled flowers above whorls of pointed triple leaves. The flowers are a deep red colour, though there is a white form. The flowers have the smell of rotting meat, as they are pollinated by flies.
Trillium erectum shares many anatomical details with other North American Trillium species. These species hybridize in the wild, which has led some researchers to group them into a species complex, specifically, a syngameon of semispecies. The combinations of traits that are supposed to differentiate members of the complex from one another are sometimes inconsistently combined in wild populations. This has led some researchers to declare the individual species invalid, and refer to the species complex collectively as T. erectum (sensu lato). Others acknowledge the existence of introgression and hybrid swarm formation between some or all complex members, but maintain that the named species within the complex represent convenient groups with common features.
Members of the Erectum complex have flowers with the following commonalities: (1) petals that are coarse and stiff in texture (in contrast with the wavy edges of other species), (2) petals that do not change color after pollination, (3) petals with prominent, netted veins, (4) fleshy stigmas that are attached to the ovary separately, without a common style, and (5) conspicuous, deeply-ridged ovaries.
North American members
The Asian species T. camschatcense, resembles the North American T. flexipes very closely, and itself has close relatives with similar floral features. However, trillium speciation in this group of Asian species is characterized by differences in chromosome number, with hybrids more definitively distinguishable from parent species by karyotype.
Named varieties include:
- Trillium erectum var. album (Michx.) Pursh
- Trillium erectum var. erectum
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