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Erythronium americanum (Adder’s tongue, Trout lily, Yellow trout lily, Yellow dogtooth violet)

Category: Medicines - plant based



Introduction and description


Erythronium americanum (Adder’s tongue, Trout lily, Yellow trout lily, Yellow dogtooth violet) is a species of perennial spring ephemeral flower.

The common name "Trout lily" refers to the appearance of its grey-green leaves mottled with brown or grey, which allegedly resemble the colouring of brook trout.


Adder’s tongue is native to North America.  

The range is from Labrador south to Georgia, west to Mississippi, and north to Minnesota. 

Its preferred habitat is moist open woods and thickets, and brooksides.

Nature's Garden - BY NELTJE BLANCHAN 1917

Colonies of these dainty little lilies, that so often grow beside leaping brooks where and when the trout hide, justify at least one of their names; but they have nothing in common with the violet or a dog's tooth.

Their faint fragrance rather suggests a tulip; and as for the bulb, which in some of the lily-kin has toothlike scales, it is in this case a smooth, egg-shaped corm, producing little round offsets from its base. Much fault is also found with another name on the plea that the curiously mottled and delicately pencilled leaves bring to mind, not a snake's tongue, but its skin, as they surely do. Whoever sees the sharp purplish point of a young plant darting above ground in earliest spring, however, at once sees the fitting application of adder's tongue. But how few recognize their plant friends at all seasons of the year!

Every one must have noticed the abundance of low-growing spring flowers in deciduous woodlands, where, later in the year, after the leaves overhead cast a heavy shade, so few blossoms are to be found, because their light is seriously diminished. The thrifty adder's tongue, by laying up nourishment in its storeroom underground through the winter, is ready to send its leaves and flower upward to take advantage of the sunlight the still naked trees do not intercept, just as soon as the ground thaws.



Trout lily blooms in early spring with nodding one-inch pale russet yellow flowers, rarely tinged with purple, slightly fragrant, 1 to 2 in. long. The petals and petal-like sepals recurved upward.

Each plant sends up a single flower stem with a pair of leaves.  The root-stalk is about 6 to 12 in, high, or about as tall as the leaves.

The perianth is bell-shaped, of 6 petal-like, distinct segments, spreading at tips, dark spotted within; 6 stamens; the club-shaped style with 3 short, stigmatic ridges.

It has two leaves, unequal, greyish green, mottled and streaked with brown or all green, oblong, 3 to 8 in. long, narrowing into clasping petioles.

Medicinal use

See observations.  Dr Duke has no analysis of this plant.  But he does have a list of uses by reference

Erythronium americanum (LILIACEAE)
Antiscrofulous Uphof; Boil Steinmetz; Cancer Hartwell; Diuretic Steinmetz; Emetic Steinmetz, Uphof; Emollient Steinmetz, Uphof; Poultice Steinmetz, Uphof; Scrofula Steinmetz; Tumor Uphof; Ulcer Uphof


Although Mrs Grieve mentions the plant and shows it once had a number of uses, it is rarely used medicinally these days and one very good reason is the rather tenuous hold it has on existence.

For the first 7 years of the plant's life it will not flower.

Furthermore, E. americanum does not reproduce very effectively via sexual reproduction with only 10% of pollinated flowers developing seeds.

In North America, trout lilies grow in colonies that can be up to 300 years old. The individuals will often reproduce asexually via a "dropper" or from small corms budding off of the main corm. A dropper is a tubular fleshy stem that grows out of a corm and then penetrates deep into the soil before another corm is formed at its tip and the stem connecting the daughter and parent corm dies.

But all this means it is a precious part of our heritage and as such should be cherished for the value it once had and its beauty now.

References and further reading

  • Coulber, Sarah. "Trout Lily – Erythronium americanum". Canada Wildlife Federation.
  • Thieret, John W. (2001). National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers, Eastern Region (revised ed.). Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Related observations