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Toad Lily Planting and Growing Information

I discovered toad lilies when I spotted an advertisement in a garden magazine. Toad lilies were described as exotic plants with small orchid-like flowers that liked shade and bloomed late. The photo showed gracefully arching leafy stems with lovely flowers covering the length of the stems. I was hooked. I knew I had to get toadies for my shady garden in Independence, Missouri.  I loved the funny name and I was frustrated trying to find plants that bloomed late in the season in my shady garden.

That was about eight years ago. Since then I have planted more than 40 toad lily plants representing more than 18 various species, hybrids and varieties. I love their first burst of flowers, some as early as August when few other things are blooming, and I love that some are still blooming when the first hard frost hits, sometimes as late as November. They look wonderful with the few other perennials that bloom late in my garden -- monkshood (Aconitum fischeri) bugbane (Cimicifuga simplex) and white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum). However, not all varieties thrived in my garden. Currently I have about a dozen different flavors of toadies in my garden.

It is said that toad lilies get their name from a tribe in the Philippines that believes rubbing the juice from the flowers and leaves on their hands helps catch frogs by attracting them and making them less slippery. So that gives the plant a practical side if you need to catch some frogs in your garden.

Toad lilies are in the Tricyrtis genus with the formosana, hirta, macropoda and latifolia species most often offered for sale. Hybrids or cultivars of these species make up most of what is generally in cultivation in the United States. Toad lilies are natives of the eastern Himalayas of Nepal and China and extend their range from Japan and south to Taiwan and the Philippines. They are very popular in Japan where many variegated sports have been discovered. They are rhizomatous and die back in in the winter.

I started out buying a half dozen hirta species plants by mail order. The hirta species grows about two feet tall and produces a clump of arching stems that develop dozens of flowers along the length of each stem. That was what I saw advertised in the magazine.

Toad lilies flowers are small, no bigger than shirt buttons, and come in a wide variety of colors ranging from white and to very dark purple. Many flowers show a white background heavily spotted with various shades of blue to purple such as shown by the formosana and hirta species. Some hybrids and cultivars show flowers that are white with a darker shading of blue or pink along the flower edge along with these spots. There are also pure white flowered varieties and some that just have a slight blush of color along the edge of white flowers. A few show yellow flowers

The small flowers demand that toad lilies be planted in the front of the garden or close to a path so they can be seen close up. On this website are close-up photos of various toad lily flowers that have bloomed in my garden. All photos were taken by me.

The hirta species are showy when then are covered with flowers along the stem but generally bloom only a couple of weeks. The formosana and macropoda species and their hybrids and cultivars produce flowers in bracts at the end of the stem instead of along the entire stem. They do not show as many flowers at the same time as the hirta type but will keep on producing flowers at their tip ends for many weeks.

After that first mail ordered purchase I later found a good source for toadies much closer to home at a local garden center. I found a wide selection of hybrids and cultivars of toad lilies there and it broke my heart when that nursery closed. The other garden centers I have visited in the Kansas City area offer limited varieties and some offer no plants at all.

No matter what type of toady you pick they all prefer well-drained woodland soil with lots of organic material. They also like to be constantly moist, which can be a challenge in the often hot, dry summers of our area. I mulch my entire garden heavily in the winter with cotton burr compost, which all my shady plants seem to love. Since I also grow a dozen varieties of astilbe in my shady garden (which also require lots of water) I initially laced hundreds of feet of soaker hose throughout my garden to help meet moisture needs. After I retired I abandoned the soaker hose system because I found it watered the garden unevenly. I now have time to water my garden by hand and by tripod sprinkler.

Toad lilies are not without their problems, though. Although I have found them to be generally not bothered by insects, rabbits or deer some varieties seem to be more susceptible to fungus disease than others. The fungus attack the leaves, generally from the bottom, turning the leaves yellow and later brown.

Because the fungus attacks at the bottom first, it makes me think that the problem is related to dampness from morning dew and lack of air circulation to dry the moisture quickly. A regular dousing with a good fungicide helps as does pulling off the diseased leaves and discarding them someplace away from the garden. I have had the worst problems with a hybrid called 'Blue Wonder' but some degree of the problem has been shown by most plants. Mostly it just affects the look of the plant. However, smaller, newly planted young plants are susceptible to being completely defoliated by the fungus if they are not treated.

Although toadies are advertised to grow and bloom well in shade, as we all know there are various types of shade. Plant them where they get at least some dappled sun during parts of the day and maybe some full sun for a couple of hours in the morning. If they are placed in too dark of a spot they may grow and even bloom but they will not flourish. If you plant some of the new variegated types the variegation will be more prominent if they are placed where they can get some early morning sun or at least dappled sun for a goodly time.

The variegated cultivators generally can be disappointing if you expect to see prominent marking on the leaves. Generally they show some subtle white along the edge of the leaves. Two of the better variegated cultivars in my experience are the 'Guilt Edge' and 'Samurai'.  A cultivar offered called ‘Guilty Pleasure’ was advertised as having leaves that came out lime green in color and turned to “gold” as the season progressed. In my garden the leaves on this cultivar just stayed lime green the entire summer. The leaves were much lighter in color than the other toadies I have in the garden, so I initially was satisfied with that. However, it did not survive it first winter.

I found a variegated toadie called 'Imperial Banner' that has most prominent variegation I have seen yet. The leaves have a dark green edge with a bright white streak through the leave's centers. I eagerly purchased five small plants to test. Alas none returned the next year.

One of the real benefits of the named cultivars is that many do not get as tall as the normal species.  They  make lovely specimen plants when tucked in along the edges of the garden. The formosana species get about three feet tall in dappled sun and as tall as four feet in places where they get full sun in early morning. So the shorter variegated cultivars are perfect for planting in front of the taller species.

When you are shopping for toad lilies be sure to check if they are hardy for the zone you garden is in. One of my favorite toadies is Tricyrtis formosana 'Amethystina'. It has drop dead gorgeous flowers tipped with dark blue on the petal ends with light red spots on a white background through the remainder of the white flower. It starts blooming in mid July and continues to bloom into fall. Unfortunately it's a Zone 7 plant and won't survive most winters in my Zone 5 area.

A small garden center close to my house used to offer these plants in July. I would treat them as annuals by putting some in pots on both sides of the shady bench in my garden. That way I could enjoy the flowers up close when I sat on my shady bench afternoons reading a novel, something I do most summer days after the gardening is done. More recently I found some pots of 'Amethystina' at a garden center marked that they are good through Zone 5. I got two, one to put in a pot to take inside in the winter and the other to plant in the garden.  Maybe it's a new variant that is more cold hardy.

A good book that covers toad lilies is W. George Schmid's An Encyclopedia of Shady Perennials. There also is excellent information about toad lilies on the Internet.

The Chicago Botanical Garden ran 10-year-long tests on which toad lilies did the best in the Midwest. “Toad lilies are noteworthy perennials for their late-season flowers, and with few exceptions are superb garden plants for the Midwest,” the report said. “Excellent ratings were given to Tricyrtis formosana and ‘Miyazaki’ because of their superior floral displays, robust habits, winter hardiness and disease resistance. Flower production on the other toad lilies was usually low at peak bloom, but extended flowering periods of six to 10 weeks were not uncommon.”

Schmid's book mentions some toadies produce yellow flowers, the flava and oshumiensis species and a cultivar named 'Amanagawa'. I think I want some of those plants. The problem, however, is there are just too many kinds of toadies and my garden is getting too full to plant them all. But I can try, can't I? I discovered a new variety of toad lilies at my garden center in May 2010 - Tricyrtis latifolia 'Yellow Sunrise'. It's suppose to sport yellow flowers with brown spots. I will squeeze it in somewhere. Stay tuned.

To go directly to photos of toad lilies that have bloomed in my garden click here.


Bibliography
Books
Armitage, Allan M. -  Armitage's Garden Perennials. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press Inc., 2000
Schmid, W. George - An Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press Inc., 2002
Chatto, Beth - Beth Chatto's Woodland Garden. London: The Octopus Publishing Group, 2002
Cramer, Harriet L. - The Shadier Garden. New York: Crescent Books, 1997

Primary Source
Personal experience of growing toad lilies in my own garden.

 Click here for information about Terrence Thompson's photography books.

Toad lilies that have been planted in my garden:

Successful so far:

Tricyrtis formosana (Lilac colored flowers with spots)

Tricyrtis formosana 'Dark Beauty' (White flowers heavily spotted reddish-purple)

Tricyrtis formosana 'Empress' (Large darkly spotted flowers)

Tricyrtis formosana 'Gilt Edge' (Deep pink spotted flowers, leaves have narrow cream-colored edges)

Tricyrtis formosana 'Samurai' (Purple spotted flowers, leaves have gold variegated foliage)

Tricyrtis hirta (White with purple spots)

Tricyrtis hirta 'Miyazaki' (White flowers with lavender spots)

Tricyrtis hirta 'Variegata' (Pink flowers, leaves have white edges)

Tricyrtis latifolia 'White Towers' (White flowers)

Tricyrtis macropoda (White flowers with purple spots)

Tricyrtis hybrid 'Blue Wonder' (Blue flowers)

Tricyrtis hybrid Taipei Silk' (Blue flowers with purple spots)

Tricyrtis hybrid 'Tojen' (Lavender-purple flowers with white eyes)

Pending further trials:

Tricyrtis formosana 'Amethystina' (White and blue flowers with red spots)

Tricyrtis latifolia 'Yellow Sunrise' (Yellow flowers with brown spots)

Planted unsuccessfully:

Tricyrtis hirta 'Moonlight' (White with dark lavender spots)

Tricyrtis hybrid 'Hatatogisa' (Blue flowers with purple spots)

Tricyrtis hybrid 'Guilty Pleasure' (Foliage is yellow)

Tricyrtis hybrid 'Kohaku' (White flowers with violet spots)

Tricyrtis hybrid 'Shirthotogisu' (White flowers)

Tricyrtis hybrid 'Sinonome' (White flowers

Those varieties that did not survive in my garden may have been planted in bad spots. Some had their roots torn up by my resident garden mole, which has managed to evade my most clever efforts  to eradicate it. An extremely late spring freeze in 2007 damaged some young plants so badly that they never returned. Instead of mourning these lost plants I consider garden space left behind as an excuse to try a different toadie cultivar.

 

There is also a controversy on whether an unknown virus is infecting some plants and whether that is producing dark splotches on flowers. Click here to read about that.

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