Toad lilies (Tricyrtis)

If you are looking for something different for a shady spot why not try some toad lilies? These interesting plants with their dainty, exotic, orchid like blooms in late summer add color to the shade when few other shade plants are blooming. They are perennial plants and relatively easy to grow.  They are also deer resistant but rabbits are said to eat them.

No one knows how Tricyrtis got the common name toad lily.  It might be because it likes to grow in shady damp areas where toads might be found.  Or it could be because of the splotched and spotted flowers although they look nothing like the spots on toads.  Despite the name toad lilies are charming. They are relatively new to the modern garden scene- probably first seen in garden stores in the early 1990’s.

Toad lilies are native to Eastern Asia, China and Japan and into the Himalayans.  There is a great deal of confusion still in the market place as to the proper labeling of the different species, some 20-22 of them- and the many hybrids coming on the scene don’t help matters. Toad lilies are members of the lily family (well, most agree on that). 

Tricyrtis likes cool, moist areas and does best in zones 5-7 (some species hardy to zone 4). It can be grown in warmer zones if it is in a very shaded location and kept consistently moist.  In the north partly shaded or lightly shaded areas are ideal.

Tricyrtis sends up 1-3 foot stems from rhizomes just under the ground. The oval leaves of Tricyrtis clasp the stem and partially surround it.  Some species have leaves only on one side of the stem; others look fuller, with leaves on both sides of the stem. The leaves are dark green in most species but there are now many cultivated varieties of toad lilies with variegated leaves.  In some species the stems are slightly hairy.

Tricyrtis blooms in late summer and early fall and the blooms appear at the end of the stems. The flowers of toad lilies are quite interesting and most face upward so you can admire their beauty more closely. (Some Tricyrtis species also have dangling bell shaped flowers.)  Despite the attempts of many catalogs to make them appear larger, the flowers are only an inch to 2 inches long. There are six long narrow petals.  (Actually like most members of the lily family there are actually 3 petals and 3 sepals which look like petals.)

The toad lily flower stamens are fused together in a cone in the center of the flower and three feathery pistils, or female parts are prominent in the center, these are often forked or lobed at the ends and dotted with color like the petals.  Some flowers are solid colors in white, lavender, yellow or pink but most toad lilies are known for their speckled and spotted flowers.

An interesting new development links the spotting and blotching in some varieties of toad lilies to a virus similar to Mosaic Bean virus.   The University of Minnesota did some tests on blotched and spotted toad lilies and found the virus.  The infected plants seem to grow normally otherwise and more work needs to be done to see how the virus affects the various species.

What Tricyrtis needs

Toad lilies need a shady moist area to do their best.  They prefer a rich, organic soil. They are plants that need several years to fulfill their best potential.  They normally bloom the first year but often on only one stem.  They may need several years to spread and form a nice vigorous clump to make an impact.  Heights vary from compact varieties about 8 inches tall to species ranging about 2 feet tall.

Toad lilies must have consistent moisture or the leaves dry on the edges and look ratty.  Too much sun will also cause the drying.  They benefit from the addition of compost and a good slow release fertilizer in the spring and again in mid-summer.  They are best planted in the spring.

The plants can be propagated from cuttings, seeds or dividing the rhizomes. Dividing takes some care, as a new growth bud must be on each division of the crown.  Tricrytis seeds germinate easily if they are given a cold, moist treatment for several weeks before planting.  Most gardeners will want to buy their toad lilies as bare rhizomes or as potted plants. The plants spread slowly in the garden and are not considered to be invasive.

Remember the flowers are small, and to be seen and appreciated, toad lilies need to be close to the front of the bed or along a woodland path. They are charming in naturalized settings.

Choosing Varieties

There are new hybrids, varieties and species being offered each year as the plants become more popular.  Here are some named selections.

‘Togen’ is one of the oldest varieties on the market.  It has white petals with lavender edges. ‘Taipai Silk’ has purple flowers with white edges.  ‘Sinonome’ has white flowers with purple specks and the leaves are on both sides of the stem, and the plant is compact.

‘Empress’ has the largest flowers of the Toad Lilies, they are white dotted with purple. ‘Raspberry Mousse’ is a solid wine red.  ‘White Towers’ has solid white flopwers.

‘Golden Leopard’ is a shimmering yellow with brown spots. ‘Moonlight Treasure’ has rounded, variegated leaves and large golden yellow flowers. ‘Lightning Strike’ has tall arching stems of golden foliage with green markings and light lavender flowers.  ‘Imperial Banner’ is a sport of ‘Empress.  It has the same flowers but the leaves have a broad white streak down the middle and are slightly wavy.  ‘Gilt Edge’ has leaves outlined in gold. ‘Lunar Landing’ is a hybrid toad lily with silvery, velvet like leaves, each bordered in dark green, reddish stems and purple flowers.

Caution: All parts of the Tricyrtis plant are poisonous.

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