Toad lilies or Tricyrtis are Asian natives of the lily family that generally flower during the fall...but oh, what flowers! Featuring clusters of delicate, 2-inch, star-shaped blossoms on the tops of arching 12- to 24-inch stems, many toad lily types are highlighted by wild speckling and striping on the flowers or leaves, or both. Some of the newer hybrids also have striking variegated foliage.
The most commonly available Tricyrtis in the U.S. is T. hirta, although gardeners may also come across T. bakerii, T. flava, or T. stolonifera. Tony Avent's Plant Delights Nursery probably has the best retail selection of tricyrtis available to gardeners. Here is a link to the Plant Delights Tricyrtis online catalog page: http://www.plantdelights.com/Catalog/Current/page85.html
Barry Glick of Sunshine Farm and Gardens has also developed a few hybrids of his own, among them ‘Angel's Halo' (pictured at left) and ‘Snow Fountain'.
Most of the common Tricyrtis types have purplish flowers and plain green leaves, but Plant Delights' selection covers all of the lovely toad lily variations; check out the unusual yellow spotted flowers on ‘Golden Leopard' or the crazy, flecked foliage of ‘Lunar Landing'. ‘Lightning Strike' has golden streaks on the leaves and orchid-like flowers, while ‘Minazuki' features chartreuse leaves and lavender flowers. I recently planted the gorgeous variegated 'Imperial Banner' (shown below right) in a dark spot of my front yard and it really lit up the space. So you can see, there is quite a variety to choose from!
Like a true toad, Tricyrtis prefers moist shade, making it a lovely companion to hostas, brunneras and ferns. The rhizomatous roots will spread, but not to the point of invasiveness. Mine has grown into a large but polite 2- by 2-foot clump in four years in a clay-heavy shade bed.
Know that toad lilies are not without some problems, however. The leaves of my ‘Miyazaki' get chewed to bits by something every year in mid-summer. Some years it's been caterpillars, but this year it was a big fat katydid that almost totally defoliated the plant.
I could never find him at the scene of the crime. When l did track him down, I discovered he was apparently spending his days lounging underneath a nearby Adirondack chair and then feasting on my Tricyrtis at night. So just a warning: keep your Bt and/or orange oil handy. With toad lilies, you'll probably need one of the two eventually. Or if you're not squeamish, handpick the offending critter and offer it to the nearest hungry mockingbird.
Luckily, toad lilies also seem to be resilient; my ‘Miyazaki' is currently covered with brilliant speckled blooms...although its leaves still look a bit worse for wear.
Another problem with toad lilies that has recently been discovered is Tricyrtis Floral Virus. The disease seems to have spread from the Tricyrtis 'Raspberry Mousse' hybrid, and can cause an unusual blotchy color to develop in infected plants, mostly the purple-flowered types. Tests are ongoing, but if you see weird mottling on the blossoms of your toad lilies, it's likely your plant is infected and should be removed. Viruses like these are terribly hard to eradicate once they take hold, as many hosta growers can attest. More information about the toad lily virus can be found here.
Interestingly, when I did a Google search on Tricyrtis ‘Raspberry Mousse', I found several nurseries still selling it, including one of the "big box" stores. They show pictures of a dark blotchy-colored toad lily flower with the following boasting description: "At last...a nearly completely solid-colored tricyrtis!" Wow. Needless to say, I fired off an email to the company letting them know these plants carry an infection and should probably be removed from their catalog. We'll see if I hear back.
Of course, if you're not planning on growing a variety of different toad lilies, putting a 'Raspberry Mousse' in your flower bed is most likely ok, as the virus doesn't seem to affect non-tricyrtis plants - just other toad lilies. At any rate, it's always good to be aware. But there are so many beautiful varieties of this plant it would a real shame if gardeners were to ignore the different types being offered.
Top picture of 'Miyazaki' taken by me.
‘Imperial Banner': Dave's Garden member TomH3787
‘Angels Halo': Barry Glick: Sunshine Farm and Gardens