In fall, a gardener bows to the end of the blooming season. Well, some of us bow. The rest of us scurry around like mad trying to start the whole process all over again in a last glorious gasp before winter. For years, we've had chrysanthemum, aster and sedum to provide big blowsy blotches of autumn color, like a brass-band finale. But autumn, a season of winding down and drawing in, calls for something more subtle than brass bands, something a little more contemplative. That's where tricyrtis, commonly known as toad lily, comes in.
"Tricyrtis stands out for being very sophisticated, with very gracefully arching stems," says Rene Beaulieu, horticulturist at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.
Tricyrtis earned the name toad lily because of the speckles on the lily-like blossoms that resemble the markings on some toads. It is an autumn gift to gardeners. It not only flowers in late September and early October, but also is happiest, unlike most end-of-summer perennials, in partial shade.
"Getting color in the shade in the fall is a hard thing to do," says garden designer Marcy Brown, owner of Outside Insights, a perennial garden design firm in Kent County. "Typically, shade bloomers open in the spring before the leaves come out. But toad lily blooms in shade in the fall with a wonderful orchid-like flower."
Actually, toad lilies look less like orchids and more like something out of Looney Tunes, a kind of botanical cartoon with furry antenna-like stamens that stick up out of a clown's collar of petals.
"They're such fun, funky flowers," says Beaulieu.
Originally from Japan, where their flowers are grown for the florist trade, tricyrtis also have lovely cascading foliage that rises from the ground like a small fountain. But because they are relatively short in height (usually 18 inches to 2 feet) and, like most woodland flowers, delicate, they can easily be eclipsed when planted in a broad border of mounded perennials. Instead, they work best where they will stand out -- in pots, along walkways or on the edge of a woodland garden.
"They're nice planted with low-growing asarum, [wild ginger] around their feet," says Beaulieu.
Ken Druse, author of Making More Plants: The Science, Art and Joy of Propagation (Clarkson Potter, $45) suggests planting them in woodland gardens coupled with dwarf hostas. The hostas' foliage will look spectacular with the arched tricyrtis blooms and hide the tricyrtis foliage, which by fall will just be beginning to dry.
"Unfortunately, the tricyrtis foliage often is starting to go when the blooms arrive," he says.
Druse has several varieties in one woodland garden at his New Jersey home, and he grows Tricyrtis 'Macropoda' in a hanging planter so the blooms are easily visible.
"The flowers are very fleshy, and are so heavy that the plant lays down," he says. "I grow it on a wall so I can look up to the flowers."
Location, Brown agrees, is critical to appreciation of this flower. Since her gardens are designed to be walked into, she plants Tricyrtis hirta beside strategically positioned chairs so guests can sit down and examine it very closely.
"That way, you can really appreciate the form and colors," she explains.
There is a surprising variety of forms and colors available now.
* Tricyrtis hirta 'Variegata' has wine-colored splotched blooms that shoot out of furred, yellow-bordered leaves. (Hirta means hairy.)
* 'Hatatogisa' has beautiful lavender, bronze and honey-colored blooms.
* 'Simonome' has angular petals that are speckled with deep burgundy and sport hairy bronze flower buds.
* Tricyrtis 'Formosana,' has glossy, yellow-rimmed foliage and lavender-purple flowers that appear in mid-October.
"Ten years ago, there was one tricyrtis," says Druse. "Now there's over a dozen, including some nice new white and variegated pink varieties. I like the variegated ones especially. Of course, my favorite is always the last one I saw and don't have yet.
"Although most tricyrtis varieties have the telltale spots, White Flower Farm's newest toad lily, Tricyrtis 'Shirohotogishu,' -- is pure white.
"At first, we thought: white is white," says Beaulieu. "But when we saw it blooming in the trial garden, it was just stunning. Clear white flowers with an intricate petal design."
Growing toad lilies
Though they look exotic, toad lilies are surprisingly low-maintenance perennials. Give them partial shade and slightly acidic, moist (but not soggy) soil and they'll grow well.
"They can't dry out and they don't want to bake in the sun," Beaulieu says.
They are rhizomatous, which means they have tuberous roots like the fresh ginger you see in the grocery and like iris rhizomes. They have wide but not deep feeder roots, which can jeopardize them in drought, especially in the first few years of growth.
"Every year, I put a 4- to 6-inch layer of shredded oak leaves, which are slightly acidic, on them," says Druse. "Once they become established, they can stand a little dryness -- since the trees under which they are planted sometimes rob the soil of moisture, but they need water, especially in early days, so they need to be mulched."
7530 N.E. 288th St.
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Plant Delights Nursery, Inc.
9241 Sauls Road
Raleigh, NC 27603
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Depauw, IN 47115-9039
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White Flower Farm
P.O. Box 50
Litchfield, Conn. 06759-0050