Threeness

The wonder of the trillium is in its threeness: three simple, perfect leaves topped by three creamy petals. These elegantly understated plants often look somewhat otherworldly next to the other, more casual woodland flowers, and stumbling upon them always feels a bit like discovering a secret.

The trillium is the subject of widely varying lore, but modesty, simplicity, and evanescence are the recurring themes. Like all spring ephemerals it makes a brief vernal appearance under the leafless trees before disappearing under the roar of summertime foliage. What makes the wild trillium more elusive (and in some places threatened or endangered) is its fragility: it takes up to 15 years for a plant to flower, and if a plant is damaged or a flower is picked, it can take up to 7 years for the plant to recover.

In search of this springtime friend, we journeyed to the Jefferson National Forest, to a set of trails on which we had noted clumps of the foliage on a late-spring trip several years before. Late on a Saturday afternoon, we parked at the small lot where the Apple Orchard Falls and Cornelius Creek trail heads originate, then hiked a short distance along Cornelius Creek to camp for the night. At daybreak, we headed back down to the Apple Orchard Falls trail head and began making our way up the mountain. It wasn’t long before we sighted our quarry, and soon the path was lined with the fabled foliage and flowers:

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This circuit hike offers some of the best stream scenery in Virginia, and as the trilliums became fewer the waterfalls stepped up their game. An early teaser is this lovely moss-covered cove:

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A quick, steep hike from here landed us at the base of Apple Orchard Falls in all its early-morning glory:

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Past Apple Orchard Falls, we traveled a fire road a mile or so before connecting to the Cornelius Creek Trail, where the creek winds through fairy-tale woods, showing off all the way:

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The small, early green leaves shimmered like emerald droplets in the hushed forest as we descended along Cornelius Creek. Occasional trillium flowers dotted the path, standing in serene stillness at the edges of slowly encroaching shade. Like everything in the forest, the trillium flower cannot last; but it has a much shorter time to entrance us. Its beauty is in its modesty, yes, and its simplicity–and in its passing.

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