Ask A Master Gardener – The Toad Lily

Photo Credit: Christea Jacobs

The Unique and Beautiful Toad Lily

Have you ever considered planting a toad in your garden?  No, not the hopping amphibian, but a beautiful toad lily.  These small orchid-like flowers are not deserving of their somewhat unattractive name.  The mottled coloration may make some think of a toad, but this charming flower is more than meets the eye.

Toad lily flowers (Tricyrtis) are in the lily family, making them a true lily.  Some other “lilies” like calla lily, lily of the valley, water lily, and daylily are not true lilies.  However, this classification is not going to make them any more or less enjoyable to you, the gardener.  Garden writers described them over 100 years ago, but they fell out of favor until around 1990.  Today, they are widely available in most garden centers.

These perennial plants are native to Asia and are often found at the woodland edge.  They are shade-loving and will thrive in moist soil with high organic matter.  In nature they will grow in tall grasses, but they will do well in your garden in neat clumps along the edges of the garden where their detail can be appreciated.

In 2001, Richard Hawke, manager of Plant Evaluation at the Chicago Botanical Garden, reported on a ten-year study of 24 kinds of toad lilies, writing that “uncommon beauty, late-season blooms and adaptability to shade give the toad lilies exceptional garden merit.”  In that study, the best performer was Tricyrtis formosana.  This is a taller specimen, with 36–40 inch stalks and plenty of purple and white blooms clustered at the top of the stems. However, this species is only hardy to Zone 6, and would not do well in this area.

Equally reliable, and more popular in Wisconsin gardens, is Tricyrtis hirta, or Hairy Toad Lily.  This shorter (12–36”) species is native to Japan and is grown not only for its beautiful flowers, but for its interesting foliage as well.  This plant is hardy to Zone 4, so is better adapted to Wisconsin weather.

Hairy toad lilies grow from a creeping rhizome, forming a mass of foliage that will spread over time.  They start to bloom in late summer to early fall and continuing until a hard frost, usually for about a three-week period.  They are easy to divide.  Simply dig up a clump and transplant to the new area in the spring and you will likely have blooms by fall.  The plants do not require stalking or deadheading.  They have few pests, although rabbits do find them attractive.

The leaves of hairy toad lilies wrap around the stem in a clasping manner, alternating like a ladder.  The stems are graceful arches that bend, often all in the same direction, creating a flowing pattern.  The flowers are small (one inch wide) and delicate.  They are scattered up and down the stem either singly or in clusters of two or three.  Each bloom has six petals that are white to pale purple, splattered with dark purple spots and a purple stigma.  As the name suggests, all parts of the plant are “hairy.”

In order to appreciate their beauty, hairy toad lilies should be observed up close, so using them as a border plant in a shade garden is an excellent choice.  Pair them with other shade-loving plants that like moist conditions like lungwort (Pulmonaria), hostas, ferns, anemone, Solomon’s seal, and astilbe.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener



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