Wildflower expert Brian Carson has made a specialty of finding (and cultivating) rare trillium varieties and mutations — before developers’ bulldozers can wipe out their woodland habitats
BRIAN CARSON IS SOUGHT OUT by wildflower experts the world over. He is in demand as a speaker among naturalist groups and horticultural societies. His plant-finding skills and generosity to fellow gardeners have earned the respect and admiration of his peers. But nothing sums up Carson’s passion and personality better than a gift he received from his granddaughters in 2019 for his 77th birthday — a bumper sticker that reads: “I brake for trilliums.”
Talking with Carson, it is clear there is no trillium he would not like. “They’re a beautiful wildflower,” he says. But his focus, and the main reason for his acclaim, are elusive, rare mutations in Trillium grandiflorum — Ontario’s familiar provincial emblem, and one of five trillium species in the province. Those mutations produce double trilliums, once described by the renowned American botanist Mary Gibson Henry as the “Holy Grail” of North American wildflowers. “It’s a mutation in which all the reproductive parts are modified to petals,” Carson explains. Instead of the three-petal flower Ontarians know, the mutated trillium has a cluster that makes it look like a little gardenia.
Carson, whose interest in plants began decades ago when he grew tonnes of vegetables for his market garden near Manotick, started exploring for “doubles” in the Ottawa Valley in the 1990s after reading of one being found near Syracuse, New York. At that time, there had been no recorded sighting in Canada. “It took me 10 years to find the first one,” he says. He came upon it in a beautiful woodland near his cottage outside Shawville, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. He dubbed it the “Shawville Double.”
Since then, Carson has found numerous other double trilliums in various locations. “They’re turning up regularly now, perhaps because of where I’m looking and my dedication — or it could just be that nobody’s looking elsewhere.” He laughs, but Carson is known as “the trillium guy” for good reason. He can lay claim to having found and reported more new double trilliums than anyone in North America. Aside from the “doubles,” his finds also include mutations with anywhere from zero to five petals, and hundreds of colour variants of another, traditionally red trillium species, Trillium erectum.
But Carson is not just a trillium hunter; he is also a grower. In spring and summer, his 0.2-hectare yard in Stittsville, in suburban Ottawa, as well as his cottage property are riots of colour thanks to the many wildflowers he cultivates. Although he is a big man with thick hands—he ran his own stone, brick and block masonry business for 30 years before retiring and looks the part—Carson’s appreciation for nature and the beauty and delicacy of small plants shines through. Transplanted doubles, which are generally sterile, have pride in his yard, and he reproduces them vegetatively (cutting rhizomes and removing offsets) to eventually share with other plant lovers. He is also separating and hand pollinating the colour variants of Trillium erectum in hopes of developing seed strains. “Once I’ve got the strain, I can either have them vegetatively reproduced or distribute the seed,” he explains, aiming to offer the results to botanical gardens and individual gardeners.
Sharing finds — whether by exchanging plants and seeds or by telling stories and showing photographs to local audiences — is “kind of his mission,” says Anne Harbord, a director at the Ontario Horticultural Association who met Carson in 2007 and successfully nominated him for the association’s Award of Merit in 2018. “He loves to joke. When he does a presentation, you’re laughing along with him, and he’ll tell all the little side stories about things that happened to him while he was out plant-hunting.” Those stories include serendipitous finds while stopping to rest, park a bike or take a “nature break”; encounters with bears and foxes; and near collisions after sudden stops to get a closer look at roadside flowers (hence the bumper sticker).
But there is a serious side to Carson’s obsession. One of Ontario’s five trillium species, the drooping trillium (Trillium flexipes), is listed as endangered; there are just two known populations, both west of London. Additionally, many trillium woodlands and other wildflower habitats in eastern Ontario are threatened by development. “He tries to save as many plants as he can,” says Harbord.
For the same reason, while he encourages people who attend his talks to go out in the spring and look “down at their feet” as well as looking up at the birds, he rarely reveals the specific locations of his finds. “I kind of feel a responsibility now to find them before the bulldozers do,” says Carson. “Otherwise, they’re lost.”
This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of ON Nature magazine.
Photography courtesy of Brian Carson