Can You Really Be Jailed For Picking Trilliums in Ontario?

Law or urban legend? We got to the bottom of this provincial mystery once and for all.

Walking along the road near our cottage in Gravenhurst, my grandmother used to stop and point out the trilliums growing in the wilderness on the edge of her property. “You can’t pick those,” she’d caution me, noting that she’d carefully transplanted dozens of the small white flowers over the years. “It’s actually illegal to pick trilliums in Ontario.”

My grandmother was a brilliant woman and a skilled gardener, so I never really questioned this statement. Picking trilliums is illegal, I repeated to others, wondering all the while if there was a secret provincial police squad that handled botanical offenses. (There is not.)

Unfortunately, even the most wonderful grandmothers are wrong sometimes. As it turns out, it’s not always illegal to pick trilliums, though they are incredibly delicate and plucking their blooms could get you into trouble under specific circumstances. Here’s what you need to know before you grab your garden shears.

Ontario trilliums - close up of trillium blossomPhoto: Shutterstock

What’s so special about trilliums?

The trillium grandiflorum, colloquially known as the white trillium or great white trillium, is a small, three-petalled perennial flower that’s found in many parts of Ontario as well as in Nova Scotia. It typically blooms in late April and May before disappearing for the remainder of the year (the plant withers after several weeks but the roots and bulbs remain alive underground). There are several other varieties of trillium found across North America and Asia.

Trilliums are lovely, and there’s a good reason Ontario residents are protective of them. The white trillium has been Ontario’s official floral emblem since 1937, which is why it appears on the provincial government’s logo. In addition to having a floral emblem, Ontario also has an official tree (the eastern white pine), an official gemstone (the amethyst), an official bird (the common loon), an official motto (‘loyal she began and loyal she remains’) and more. There’s even a provincial tartan in Ontario’s official colours, green and yellow.

Is it illegal to pick trilliums in Ontario?

The short answer is no. However, it really depends on where you are. There is no specific law against picking trilliums in Ontario, but it is against provincial law to “disturb, cut, kill, remove or harm any plant, tree or natural object in a provincial park or conservation area.” Meaning, if you pick a white trillium that’s growing in your backyard, that’s perfectly legal. But if you pick a white trillium in a provincial park or local conservation area? Yes, you could be fined—but no more than you’d be fined for picking a tulip or any other flower. The act of picking a plant on provincial land is what would be illegal, not picking the trillium specifically.

It should be noted the white trillium plant is not hardy and picking its flowers can have serious consequences for the species. It can take seven to ten years for a trillium to mature enough to bloom, so they aren’t easily replaced. And trilliums are extremely fragile, so removing a bloom will often result in the plant’s death. It may not be illegal to pick one, but it’s certainly not a good idea.

Why do so many people think it’s illegal to pick trilliums?

Because it was almost true! In 2009, an MPP in the Peterborough-Kawartha region, former rural affairs minister Jeff Leal, introduced a private members’ bill called the Ontario Trillium Protection Act. The proposed legislation made it illegal to pick or dig up any white trillium flowers in the province. The penalty was to be a fine of $500 or more, and the bill got a lot of public attention. However, while the bill passed the first reading, the amendment never actually gained full approval at the Ontario legislature. Despite its failure to pass into law, the proposal made a mark on our collective memory and over a decade later, the myth persists.

So there you have it. We don’t recommend picking Ontario’s floral emblem (you’ll almost certainly kill it), but if you can’t resist picking a trillium at the family cottage or digging up some white trillium plants on your own property, you won’t end up in jail.

Next, find out the fascinating story behind every provincial flower.