o Toad Lilies: The Genus Tricyrtis

Ask any group of gardeners why plants in the genus Tricyrtis are called "toad lilies" and you're bound to get a different answer from each of them. But one thing they will unanamousley agree on, these little Asian gems have quickly gained a foothold in todays gardens, and deservedly so.

Tricyrtis are extremely hardy perennials that send up mysterious, orchid-like blooms in the fall, a time when most plants have had their season and the garden takes on a somewhat barren look. I'd definitely put them in the low maintenence catagory, but that doesn't mean that they won't respond quite favorably to a little kindness and attention. One things for sure, they do require shade, deep shade if you are much south of the Mason-Dixon line. And they love a good, moist soil rich in organic matter. If they don't get their required amount of shade and moisture, you will surely see their unhappiness in the guise of ratty looking, brown foliage.

As far as placement in the garden goes, they are wonderful companions to hostas, hellebores, erythroniums and woodland lillies. These all share the same cultural requirements, which makes group plantings that much easier to maintain. And with this kind of mix, you can have a long season of blooms in your shade border.

Depending on which taxonomist you talk to, there are about 20 species in the genus Tricyrtis, which makes its home in Liliaceae, the lily family. They are mostly Asian natives, ranging from Nepal eastwards through China to Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Phillipine Islands. The greatest number and diversity is in Japan. The Japanese name for Tricyrtis is Hototogisu, which I am told, translates to "cuckoo," probably in reference to the spotting on the leaves of several species.

Tricyrtis species are all herbaceous plants growing from a rhizomatous rootsock with fibrous outer roots. They're all very easy to grow from seeds. I sow my seeds in 4" pots with a layer of medium grit on the tops of the pots to discourage lichens and mosses from growing. I put the pots outside in the woods in late fall and let mother nature handle the stratification. The seeds germinate mid-spring and usually flower the first year. Tricyrtis are also easy to propagate clonally by cuttings. They are nodal rooters, so be sure that you have at least one node in your cuttings.

The most commonly available Tricyrtis in the U.S. is T. hirta. Its a highly variable plant with hairy stems that can reach a height of 12"-24". The flowers are usually spotted in different shades of purple. Two other species usually available from specialist nurseries are T. bakerii and T. flava. Don Jacobs of Eco Gardens in Decatur, Georgia, has successfully crossed these two species and has named his cross Tricytis 'Eco Yellow Spangles'. It flowers very late in the autumn and has glossy green foliage with red spotting and large yellow flowers spotted with red dots reminiscent of the markings found on the petals of oriental lily hybrids.

Other species avialable from time to time are T. macropoda, T. affinis, T.latifolia and T. macranthopsis.

Several other named cultivars have come on the market in the last few years. One of the most attractive is 'Tojen'. I brought a plant back from the Royal Horticultural Society Gardenat Wisley in the U.K. in 1993. It has performed well in the garden. Its probably an interspecific cross between T. hirta and T. formosana, or as it is sometimes known, T. stolonifera. 'Tojen' has a lovely pastel tone to its flowers of pinkish blue.

The Plantfinder lists over 30 species and cultivars as being available in the U.K. I notice that several of them have already made their way into a few American nursery catalogs. Mike Bridges of Southern Perennials & Herbs, holder of the NAPPC collection of Tricyrtis, lists several species and cultivars in his on-line catalog.

In the Wayside Gardens catalog, you can find the cultivars 'Miyazaki', a gracefully arching T. hirta selection, and T. 'Amethsytina', a T. stolonifera selection.

Another Tricyrtis hirta cultivar that it easy to find is T. hirta variegata. Although the variegation is not as bold as in the cultivars of other plants, it's still a worthy addition to the garden and helps to brighten things up a bit with its creamy edges.

Several years ago Nagao Matsubayashi, a friend of mine in Atsumi, Japan, sent me some very special Tricyrtis seeds. He said that they were from a strain that was developed by his mentor, Dr. Hirao. Dr. Hirao was a well known plant breeder in Japan in the 1940's, '50s, and '60's and is probably most responsible for making the Japanese iris the popular plant that it is today. However, very few people know of his work with Tricyrtis. I have been working with Tricyrtis 'Dr. Hiraos Strain', crosssing , selecting and backcrossing for several years now and this spring, Sunshine Farm & Gardens will be introducing several new cultivars.

T. 'Angels Halo' has an icy white flower with a golden throat that is surrounded by a deep purple halo. It has very short internodes with a good quantity of flowers top to bottom. It flowers for a very long period.

T. 'Snow Fountain' is a pure white flower. What's unusual about this plant is the abundance of flowers it produces. Most T. hirta plants produce flowers on the top third of the plant with a lot of bare stem showing. 'Snow Fountain' produces 3-5 flower buds per leaf axil from the ground up with 8-10 flowers at the terminal and no bare stem showing. The top of each stem is so floriferous, that it almost resembles a multi-petaled hybrid tea rose.

T. 'Sharkskin' is my selection of T. stolinifera. It is even more irridescent than the cultivar 'Amethystina' and a very vigorous grower. The coloration and sheen reminded me of those ridiculous sharkskin suits that we wore in the 1960's, hence the name.

I have also produced a totally black flower, but I'm not to crazy about the shape of the petals. I hope to improve this quality over the next couple of generations.

All things considered, I think that everyone should find a place in their shade bed or border for these charming, useful plants.

- Barry Glick

Images for this article:

GardenWeb Home Page | Cyber-Plantsman Home Page | Underused Plants

Letters and Comments | Mailing List | Submissions | Technical Problems

Copyright (c) 1996 GardenWeb