Erythronium americanum and E. albidum
The trout lily is a perennial spring ephemeral, being one of the first plants to emerge in the April. It is a member of the Lily family, Liliaceae, and grows in moist soil. It is native to North America and in the Northeast it is common in hardwood forests and beside rivers. It grows in colonies and so you usually find a cluster of plants together.
The plant has one or two basal, elliptical shaped leaves that are smooth with a fold down the center and range from 3 to 7 inches long. These green leaves have grayish-purple spots, giving the plant its name because the pattern reminded people of the brook trout.
After seven years of growing, one slender, cylindrical scape grows between the leaves to produce a single flower. The scape is 4-8 inches long and curves at the end with the flower facing downward.
The flower is approximately 1 inch wide and has 6 petals that curl back, revealing the stamens. E. americanum have yellow flowers and E. albidum have white flowers. All of this above ground growing only occurs after the trout lily matures as a teardrop shaped bulb underground for a few years. The bulb has a brown outer layer and an off white center. They are about .5 inches in diameter and lie roughly 2-5 inches below the surface.
Nutrition and Medicinal Qualities
I couldn’t find any resources on the nutrition of trout lilies. However, there is plenty of information on medicinal uses that natives had for the plant. The leaves are applied to wounds. All parts of the plant also can make tea, and then has been used for fevers and stomach ulcers. It was used as a contraceptive for women, although it is unknown how this works. The most fascinating, in my opnion, is that the plant is made up of alpha-methylene-butyrolactone, which binds to cancerous cells to inhibit reproduction and therefore could possibly be a cancer remedy.
Harvesting and Preparation
The leaves and flowers are edible. Leaves are best when they have just sprouted, before they have uncurled. People say they have a slight bitter aftertaste, but the young leaves I recently ate were mild and slightly sweet, reminiscent of apples. They should be eaten raw, because cooking exacerbates the aftertaste. The most delicious part of this plant is the bulb. The bulbs are sweetest before the plant produces shoots above ground. These can be found either by spotting very young trout lilies or by digging around plants in search of bulbs that have not germinated yet. Bulbs at this stage taste like a mix of sweet corn and snow pea. For another taste, try bulbs in summer or fall after the leaves have died back. These are harder and starchier. The bulbs are small and I found them difficult to dig up, so there is significant effort for a small return, especially when being sure not to over harvest from a colony. This could be different for other patches of trout lilies though because the colony I most recently found was in compacted soil.
I have not found any published recipes, but my favorite way to eat trout lily is in a salad.
Trout Lily Salad
2 cups trout lily leaves, cut
1-2 cloves of garlic (or wild garlic), chopped
1/4 cup almonds or walnuts
1/4 cup raisins or cranberries
Mix together all ingredients and then add your favorite salad dressing. I prefer a red wine vinegar with trout lily.