THE legendary gardener Vita Sackville-West once wrote about the complex flowers of tricyrtis, the toad lily.
She loved the delicate intricacy of the petals’ structure. From flat-bottomed buds the flowers open with six petals that are either intricately spotted or translucent. The reproductive parts, the stigma and stamens, are supported on an elongated style above the petals.
The Japanese name is ‘hototogisu’, meaning ‘cuckoo’. Not that it flowers at the same time as the cuckoos appear, but the spotting is thought to resemble a cuckoo’s chest.
Most species are native to Japan and are mentioned in traditional poetry – the spare, three-line ‘haiku’. Hototogisu flower in September and October, so indicate to the reader the poem is set in early autumn. The subject matter is enigmatic – it is about what is not said but implied.
In its native habitat tricyrtis hirta grows horizontally on shady rocks in light, damp woodland soil. It has crossed with T. affinis, to produce T. x ‘white towers’. This prostrate plant grows horizontally with bright green, slightly hairy, leaves and sports clean white flowers that show up well in the cool autumn shade of a woodland garden.
The most commonly grown species in this country, T. formosana stolonifera, the toad lily is, however, native to Taiwan. It grows in loose, leafy, moist soil, in light shade, and sports spotted, mauve-pink flowers. But the plant breeders have been at work producing many hybrids: T. matsukaze, whose very large flowers resemble purple-spotted spiders; T. shimone, with exotic white flowers and deep red spots; and T kohaku with large creamy white flowers and purple-black spots.
Then there a few species with golden flowers, which may be occasionally available from specialist nurseries. T. latifolia has large, wide leaves and golden flowers with brown spotting, and T. macrantha also has golden-yellow flowers.
They are worth snapping up. Your garden will be enriched by such unusual flowers.
All tricyrtis are magical autumn plants for every shady garden. Place a few near the path to intrigue an autumn visitor, or under a light tree where the soil is moist without being boggy. Then dot a few slug pubs about.
Add an element of mystery to your garden, and you too will surely get hooked on toads. Or should that be cuckoos?
By Sally Gregson.