l have to admit that this past winter has not been so bad here in the midlands. It hasnít gotten real cold, and there has been no snow or ice (knock on wood!). Iím glad to see the sun coming up earlier now, which always gives us a clear sign that weíre moving from winter into spring. Here is a fine example of a native plant that is making an early transition, too.

It begins to bloom while the days are still chilly, and what a beauty it is. It is, of course, one of our native trilliums, a group of herbaceous plants related to lilies. There are about 50 different trillium species in North America, and some additional ones occur in Asia. All have several features in common, including an underground rhizome. The flowering, above-ground stems each bear a single flower. Three leaves occur in a ring just below the flower. (These leaves are technically considered "bracts" by botanists, but never mind all that.) Depending on the species, the flower may be at the end of a slender stalk, or it may be sessile, and without a stalk. The flower bears three sepals, three petals, six stamens, and eventually forms a somewhat fleshy pod containing a number of seeds. The seeds of trilliums are interesting, in that they bear unusual, oily structures, called "elaiosomes", that are attractive to insects, including ants. In fact, many species of trilliums (including this week's mystery plant) are known to have seeds that ants like to carry around, eventually chewing off the elaiosomes, and thus dispersing the seeds.

Our mystery plant occurs in rich woods, often on soils over limestone. In the whole world, it can be found in the lower third of South Carolina, through parts of Georgia, and into northern Florida and central Alabama. The leaves are broadly egg-shaped, and prominently mottled, or spotted, with various shades of green. The flowers tend to be deep red or maroon colored, although yellow flowers are sometimes observed. If the air is warm enough, the flowers may give off a faint, sweet smellÖsome people say the scent is like banana.

Answer: "Mottled trillium," "Spotted trillium," Trillium maculatum

John Nelson is the curator of the Herbarium in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196.