In autumn, when the garden takes on a faded look, Tricyrtis plants come into their own with their elegant, arching stems and subtle flowers. And given their preference for a sheltered site in partial or full shade with adequate moisture, they are also an excellent choice for those difficult-to-fill shady corners.
Though known as toad lilies, their flowers are orchid-like, generally white with pink or purple spots, either staror bell-shaped and somewhat waxen in appearance. There are also yellow forms such as the early flowering T. latifolia, the petals of which are red-spotted, and types with alternating light and dark petals, including T. 'Tojen' and T. 'Adbane'.
There are about 16 species in the genus, part of the lily family. They are found in the Far East, with the greatest number and diversity in Japan. In the UK, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones from Crug Farm Plants are responsible for many new introductions. They have brought back seed collected from Japan and Taiwan, among other countries, and made selections.
Tricyrtis species are fully hardy, herbaceous plants that spread slowly using rhizomes or stolons. Their stems can be upright or arching and the leaves can clasp the stems or be more outward-facing. The flowers can be borne in the leaf axils, like T. hirta, or on a branching stem, like T. formosana.
The most commonly-sold species sold is T. hirta, but trade names are often suspect because the plants hybridise readily. The true species has hairy stems, clasping leaves and white flowers spotted pale purple. Another popular species from which many hybrids have been produced is T. formosana, whose flowers are white with red spots and a yellow base.
Tricyrtis require partial or full shade, though a few species such as T. latifolia will cope with more sun. They like fertile, well-drained but moisture-retentive soil - though some like more moisture, such as T. macrantha subsp. macranthopsis, which needs plenty of water in the growing season. If Tricyrtis do not get their required amount of shade and moisture, their unhappiness will show in ratty-looking brown foliage.
Also, because they are late-flowering plants - T. latifolia starts in midsummer but most species bloom sometime between August and October - they should not be planted in cold spots or their flowering will be cut short by early winter frosts.
Tricyrtis can be propagated by division in spring - by ripe seed sown fresh in the autumn and exposed to winter cold - and by stem cuttings taken in mid to late summer. The stem should be cut above each leaf node and the cutting inserted so that the leaf sits on the surface. It will die away but the cutting will root and a bulbil will form below the surface.
What the Specialists Say
- BLEDDYN WYNN-JONES, co-owner, Crug Farm Plants, Gwynedd - "There are many wrongly-named Tricyrtis in the trade because the plants hybridise so readily. We collect seed from the wild, increase stock and then give the seedlings relevant names. They include a nice cultivar of T. affinis - 'Earlybird', which as its name suggests is earlier flowering than others of the species.
"The species has distinct large, flat flowers, with petals out at right angles from the stem. They have a white base with purple or pink spotting. The species doesn't like conditions too warm. We also have a group of nice T. formosana hybrids - 'Small Wonder', which is obviously a small variety, 'Spotted Toad', which has lovely dark spotted leaves, and 'Tiny Toad', which is really very short.
"One I recommend as easy to grow is T. latifolia. It has yellow flowers, shaped like a shuttlecock, with red spotting. It has fairly broad leaves and unlike most Tricyrtis can cope with a bit of sun."
- JANE LOWLES, assistant, Worlds End Garden Nursery, Worcester - "Customers are attracted by their fairly exotic flowers, which are mostly white with purple spotting. They require moist shade and if given that are pretty easy to grow. They don't do well in boggy conditions, especially in winter, so be careful they're not too wet.
"There is a stunning yellow-flowered species T. macrantha subsp. macranthopsis, which is great in hanging baskets. Then there are some with interesting foliage, including T. hirta 'Variegata', the leaves of which have a lovely thin cream edge. Others I recommend are the large-flowered T. 'Empress' and the fairly new variety T. 'Hototogisu', with spotted leaves."
- RICHARD BRAMLEY, owner, Farmyard Nurseries, Camarthenshire - "They are a lovely woodland plant, easy to grow in moist shade. In Japan they are probably a weed because of their stoloniferous nature. One of my favourites is the straight formosana, because they are such reliable flowerers. A variety I particularly like is T. 'Tojen'. It's a sterile hybrid and therefore flowers well.
"Tricyrtis is a fantastic genus to photograph because all their parts are in threes. They're certainly not for people who like marigolds and petunias - they are plants with subtle flowers, with lovely white and purple colouring."
Alex Cawley, assistant manager (horticulture), Fulham Palace Garden Centre "We don't get huge numbers of plants in because they are not desperately popular. We currently have one variety available - T. 'Taipei Silk'. They are on the flowering tables among purple-flowered plants and near other plants that are also in flower at the moment, like Penstemon, daisies and chocolate Cosmos.
"We don't keep them in the shade because plants in flower tend to sell quickly so they can cope with the sun for a while, but we keep them moist and deadhead them."
SPECIES AND VARIETIES
T. affinis is one of the names often assigned wrongly to hybrids. It has stems with clasping upper leaves 30-60cm high. The widely-open purple-spotted white flowers are borne terminally and in the leaf axils.
T. affinis 'Early Bird' is one of the earliest flowering forms of this species. Bears widely-open white flowers with purple-pink spots from late May until August all the way up the stem. Height: 30-60cm.
T. formosana Award of Garden Merit (AGM) (H4) is a stoloniferous type with erect, somewhat hairy stems. The flowers are white to pink, with a yellow base and red spots inside. Borne terminally at the end of branches.
T. formosana 'Dark Beauty' is known as the blue Tricyrtis because it has dark purple/blue spotted flowers, though on alkaline soils these will be more purple. Its leaves are a very dark green.
T. formosana 'Empress' is a new cultivar from the USA with PBR. A clean, easy grower. Can be cut back in early June for compact growth.
T. formosana 'Gilt Edge' is a very popular rhizomatous type bearing dark-mauve flowers with lightly-spotted throats from August to October. Has large upright pale green leaves with a cream edge. Height: 60cm.
T. formosana 'Taroko Toad' has leafy flexuous stems, bearing terminal corymbs of broadly funnel-shaped flowers distinctly heavily spotted red, with yellow-tinged throats. Grows in sun or shade. Height: 75cm-1m. Spread: 45cm.
T. formosana 'Tiny Toad' has erect stems of spotted leaves to only 15cm tall, bearing terminal corymbs of white flowers with yellow-tinged throats, spotted pale purplish-pink. Grows in sun or part shade.
T. hirta has white, pale purple-spotted flowers and clasping leaves along the arching stems, which are bristly. Height: 80cm.
T. hirta 'Miyazaki' is an upright, rhizomatous type. It features particularly orchid-like white flowers, finely spotted with lilac-purple, and has spotted dark-green leaves that are brown-tinged and clasp the stems. Flowers from August to September.
T. hirta 'Variegata' is a rhizomatous perennial with purple-spotted white flowers from August to October. It has large upright pale-green leaves with a creamy-white edge. Prefers a moist site. Height: 80cm.
T. 'Hototogishu' is a rhizomatous type with pale-mauve flowers with lightly-spotted throats, borne from August to October. Upright dark green spotted foliage. Height: 50cm.
T. lasiocarpa bears large terminal funnel-shaped flowers, spotted with purple and with pink-blue zoning. The large ovate leaves clasp the stem and are lightly spotted. Likes sun or shade. Height: 1m. Spread: 75cm.
T. latifolia is one of the easiest and earliest species into flower. It bears yellow flowers with red spots that are upward facing between June and September. Forms clumps of erect stems clothed in broad glossy leaves that are dark spotted when they emerge. Height: 80cm.
T. macrantha subsp. macranthopsis is a trailing plant that bears long, deep-yellow, bell-shaped flowers with red spots from August to November. The arching stems can reach up to 1m. Grows alongside waterfalls in the wild and therefore needs plenty of moisture during its growing period.
T. macropoda is a species with erect stems up to 70cm. The flowers are white-purple, with small purple spots and the outer petals reflexed. They are borne on branching cymes, mostly at the tips but sometimes in the leaf axils.
T. 'Shimone' has white flowers with deep wine-red markings during September and October over green foliage. Height: 80cm.
T. 'Tojen' is an upright, clump-forming, rhizomatous type. It bears clusters of bell-shaped, pale-mauve flowers with a dark petal edge and yellow throat, from August to October. Height: 60cm.