My eyes gaze over the fall garden. Hostas, so full and vital in spring and summer, succumb to their winter dormancy. Astilbes fade, geraniums melt into russet tones. Amongst the softly falling leaves, one herbaceous genus springs forth to share the stage: the toad-lily’s time has come.
Asian in origin, the many species of Tricyrtis inhabit temperate woodlands from the Philippines to the Himalayan mountains. Most disdain full sun, except in cool, moist gardens of the Pacific Northwest (we do get away with murder here!). They should get morning sun, at most, and seem to be quite content in moderate shade. These members of the Uvulariaceae (formerly included within the lily family) generally sport upright stems with lance-like, light to mid-green leaves, although a slew of new variegated cultivars are now emerging.
Then there are the flowers—truly garden jewels. More than once, non-plant people have commented on the unusual “orchids” along my pathways, but toad lilies they be. The flowers are exotic: spatter-paint masterpieces of purples, whites, and yellows. Ketzel Levine once described the flower as a “surrealistic fantasy, which stands on three rubber boots.” Traveling through subway stations in Japan once, I was delighted to see toad lilies commonly used as a cut flower. Sterile selections with attractive foliage (eg T. ‘Tojen’) seem to perform best in this role.
Careful placement in the garden is critical, as certain toad lilies flower only at the tip of the stem (terminally), whereas others cluster thier flowers above each set of leaves as well as the tip (axillary). Terminally flowering selections are best when viewed from above, as they might be along a garden path; the axillary types fit best in a woodland border. Some toad lilies, such as Tricyrtis ‘Kohaku’ and its mother, T. macrantha subsp. macranthopsis, have a pendant habit making them more suitable for cascading down a raised bed or rock wall; in my garden, they serve as a curious groundcover.
As with many garden genera, there are both dwarfs and giants. The “baby” of the family is T. nana, growing no more than three inches tall with broad, leathery, wonderfully spotted (or black) leaves. Large primrose yellow flowers are adorned with tiny burgundy flecks. This plant is slow, rare, and hard to find. The cultivar ‘Shimone’ can tower up to five feet in Pacific Northwest Gardens. It sports lavender flowers with darker purple banding.
As toad lilies are amongst the latest to flower in the garden, siting of the plants should avoid frost pockets where the flowers might be damaged. Some selections flower so late in the season that they are unsuitable for gardens prone to early frosts.
Lessons From the Wild
One of the benefits of a travelling plantsman is the opportunity to observe cultivated plants in their native habitats. In Japan, on the slopes of Mt Fuji, I saw Rodgersia growing in a trickling stream with Tricyrtis thriving nearby in woodland conditions. The plants were growing in an evergreen duff with a fair amount of moisture below. Extrapolating this example, we can surmise that toad lilies appreciate woodland shade, acidic soil, a mulch, and steady moisture. The bulk of Tricyrtis cultivars resent drying out completely; the fleshy rhizomes will recover and resprout, but the foliage, especially the lower leaves, will suffer and burn. The addition of compost, peat, and sand to your soil will assure acidic conditions and good drainage. Toad lilies respond well to drip irrigation. To grow them in containers, choose containers large enough to keep the roots somewhat cool and never let them dry out. Heat and humidity does not seem to bother most toad lilies; T. formosana and its kin seem to thrive on it.
Fertilizating is best done with a balanced, slow-release fertilizer. Some toad lilies are heavy feeders; anemic leaves announce that food is needed. They all appreciate organic foods such as fish emulsion applied at half strength. My experience with high strength soluble fertilizers is that the leaf tips will burn.
Pests of toad lilies may include root or vine weevils, slugs and snails, and, to a lesser degree, aphids. Toad lilies are generally listed as a deer-resistant.
In the Garden
Tricyrtis are a joy, as long as they do not dry out. Far different from their “toady” name, these shade-lovers have a graceful arching habit. Their leaves are elegant and substantial, and the waxy, exotic flowers are a treat worth waiting for. Sedges (Carex) can form a pleasing, grassy counterpoint for toad lilies. They are also quite at home with hostas, but avoid the larger selections that can smother the more demure toad lilies. Gold and variegated Tricyrtis pair well with plain blue, medium height hostas. Groundcovers, such as false lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum), violets (Viola), and Asperula, provide a gentle visual base for the stems of toad lilies. Fairy bells (Disporum), Uvularia, and false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina) echo the leaf and habit of the toad lilies. Dwarf selections of Astilbe (‘Willy Buchanan’ and ‘Sprite’) enjoy the same conditions and form a lacy foil for Tricyrtis.
The Japanese Experience
In Japan, I visited specialty nurseries such as Gotemba Nursery, where Kenji Watanabe had collected, by far, the most remarkable collection of Tricyrtis imaginable. Perfectly cultured plants in three-inch pots stood begging to be purchased, but the prices were jaw dropping. I eventually paid $150 for a new variegated hybrid that he had introduced. I found bronze-leafed cultivars and even a double-flowered form. Some of the green-leafed plants were priced as low as $20, but, in his nursery, variegated foliage rules. In America, I had only seen two variegated cultivars: a gold-edged form and a white-edged selection of T. hirta. Plantspeople, such as Darrel Probst in Massachussetts, Diana Reeck of Collector’s Nursery in Washington, and this author, have begun hybridizing plants from our own collections to develop larger, showier flowers, more profuse blooming, and variegated foliage. Tissue culture now enables us to increase plants quickly and to keep the purchase price well below $150.
Tricyrtis can be propagated by root and stem cuttings, or by division. Spring is the best time to divide established clumps; early summer is the best time for root cuttings, although I have also had success with root cuttings in the fall.
Though its common name has a quaint and homely ring, Tricyrtis increasingly catches the eye and stirs the affection of discerning gardeners—a jewel forgotten and then found again in many a fall garden. Following is a representative list of Tricyrtis, some old and many brand new.
A Sampling of Toad Lilies
The following list of species and cultivars is merely a sampling of my favorite toad lilies. Some may not be readily available in North America at this time; check with the nurseries listed in the resource guide. Flowering seasons noted are for the Portland, Oregon area. USDA hardiness zones are given when they are known. (Most should be hardy to zone seven, many to zone five. (Sunset suggests zones 3-9 and 14-17.)
Tricyrtis affinis is an upright species to about three feet, with broadly oval leaves and one-inch white flowers with light purple spotting; it flowers in July.
Tricyrtis formosana offers glossy, unspotted green leaves on strong stems to forty inches. Its white flowers are spotted with purple and are smaller than most species.
Tricyrtis hirta is most common species grown, with upright stems to two feet and hairy leaves; its white flowers are heavily speckled with purple and appear in September.
Tricyrtis latifolia (syn. T. bakeri) has glossy leaves held in a rosette; they are heavily marked with reddish brown spots in spring. Flowers, in July, are yellow with fine brown spotting.
Tricyrtis macrantha subsp. macranthopsis is notable for its two-inch, deep yellow flowers, like tubular bells with reddish-brown spots inside, that hang from the leaf axils. Narrow glossy leaves line the arching stems, which become pendulous as the heavy flowers open.
Tricyrtis macropoda (syn T. dilatata) has three to four-foot tall, upright stems, broadly ovate leaves, and upright clusters of flowers with reflexed petals, heavily reddish speckled; flowering is profuse and is both terminal and axillary.
Tricyrtis nana grows only three inches tall, producing bold rosettes of huge grayed leaves, heavily spotted and with a waxy texture. Flowers are primrose yellow and lightly flecked with red.
Tricyrtis ohsumiensis grows to fourteen inches tall, its broad, shiny, sharply acute leaves densely arranged along the stems; the leaves have a thick waxy texture. The two-inch flowers are bright light yellow, slightly spotted, and sit wide open and upright in the leaf axils.
Tricyrtis ‘Adbane’ produces dark green foliage with purple tinting on two-foot stems. The mauve blue flowers have white centers.
Tricyrtis affinis ‘Mangetsu’ is a Japanese cultivar, with upright stems to about three feet with broadly oval, yellow-striped leaves and one-inch white flowers with light purple spottingl it flowers in July.
Tricyrtis ‘Angel’s Halo’ has an icy white flower with a golden throat surrounded by a deep purple halo. It has very short internodes with a good quantity of flowers from top to bottom; it flowers for a long period.
Tricyrtis ‘Eco-Yellow Spangles’ is a hybrid with widely arching stems and large, wide open, soft yellow flowers, very lightly spotted. The foliage is slightly pubescent and lightly spotted purple.
Tricyrtis ‘Empress’ is a new hybrid with extra-large flowers and almost spidery petals, white spotted purple, opening wider than any other toad lily. Glossy leaves are produced on two-foot stems. This seems to be close to T. formosana.
Tricyrtis formosana ‘Gates of Heaven’ is a two to three-foot tall, solid gold selection introduced by Walter’s Gardens. Its flowers for typical for the species.
Tricyrtis hirta ‘Albescens’ produces creamy white petals that have the faintest yellow spots.
Tricyrtis hirta ‘Gold Leaf’ is a superb gold-leaf selection with upright stems to more than two feet tall and narrow, hairy leaves that hold their gold color all season. Its flowers are white, heavily speckled with purple, but appear light purple.
Tricyrtis hirta ‘Miyazaki’ has orchid spotted flowers along arching stems in late summer and fall. This is an excellent and floriferous selection. (zone 5)
Tricyrtis hirta ‘Silver Blue’ is a selection from Farmyard Nursery with the typical habit of T. hirta: arching stems with flowers at each leaf joint. The flowers are very finely spotted with a dark bluish purple spot resulting in an attractive silvery blue colortion. The leaves and stems are hairy.
Tricyrtis hirta ‘Variegata’ presents a sharp white edge on each mid-green leaf. Flowers are typically purple spotted. (zone 5)
Tricyrtis ishiiana ‘Sunningensis’ flowers heavily with large yellow blossoms on pendant stemsl it is best seen cascading over a rock or wall.
Tricyrtis ‘Ivory Queen’ is one of Farmyard Nursery’s selections, which they consider one of the best whites seen to date. It has a good upright growth and is free flowering; flowers open wide and have an attractive yellow coloring at the base of the petals.
Tricyrtis ‘Kohaku’, a recent introduction from Japan, is a rare hybrid between T. hirta and T. macranthopsis, with large, beautiful, wide-open flowers, that are white with heavy purple spotting and marked with yellow at the base of the petals. The leaves are lightly pubescent and the branches tend to be pendulous.
Tricyrtis latifolia ‘Forbidden City’, grown from seed we received from the Beijing Botanic Garden years ago, has stood the test of time. The rosettes of lance-like, dark, shiny, olive green leaves are heavily marked with mahogany brown spots in spring; the flowering stems are dark brown and the flowers in July are yellow, but very heavily speckled with fine brownish red spots. This is a unique selection for the Tricyrtis collector.
Tricyrtis ‘Lilac Towers’ is one of the smaller selections, growing to about eighteen inches tall, but with a rather upright bushy habit and spotted leaves. The flowers are liberally spotted with dark purple oval spots that are larger at the base of the petals; the yellow coloring at the base of the petals is quite marked in this flower.
Tricyrtis ‘Lemon and Lime’ (syn. ‘Lemon Lime’) is clothed in golden foliage sometimes lined in green on stems that are shorter than most. This Terra Nova introduction with lilac flowers has some T. hirta blood in its parentage. (zone 5)
Tricyrtis ‘Lightning Strike’ comes from Japan and is a wonderful new toad lily with lavender flowers. Gold-striped leaves grade from a light center to dark green ‘lightning’ strikes along the edges. The plants look great with hostas. (zone 4-9)
Tricyrtis macropoda ‘Tricolor’ displays beautifully spotted, gray foliage, which is further enhanced by stripes of pink and white. Unusual yellow flowers appear in late summer. (zone 5-9)
Tricyrtis nana ‘Karasuba’, an amazing breakthrough from Japan, is a dwarf, bronze-leafed selection acquired from Mr Watanabe near Mt Fuji. The stems are no taller than four inches with leaves that are narrower than the species; leaf backs are a darker purple. Flowers are a medium yellow, peppered with small red spots.
Tricyrtis ohsumiensis ‘Nakatsugawa’ is an extremely desirable selection of this broad-leafed species with creamy leaf margins and large yellow flowers that appear in fall.
Tricyrtis ‘Shining Light’, another wonderful new toad lily from Japan, has gold- and dark green-striped leaves that vary on each stem for an unusual and artful effect. The flowers are lavender. This selection complements hostas beautifully. (zone 4-9)
Tricyrtis ‘Snow Fountain’ has a pure white flower, with three to five flower buds per leaf axil, from the ground up, and eight to ten flowers at the terminus of each stem; there are no bare stems visible, unlike others derived from T. hirta.
Tricyrtis ‘Togen’ (syn. T. ‘Tojen’), a beautiful selection from Japan, is robust with heavy substance; the sterile flowers are larger than other selections, white with amethyst purple tips. It is possibly one of the best for cut flowers and carries some of the cleanest foliage. (zone 5)
Tricyrtis ‘White Towers’ is one derived from T. hirta, which translates to easy care, great hardiness, and felted, arching branches adorned with white flowers in the leaf axils and at the tips. (zone 4-9)