Tricyrtis (toad lilies) are a shade-loving perennial in the lily family whose small but beautiful and intricately designed orchid-like flowers stop people in their tracks. When looking for woodland garden plants that flower after the spring season, tricyrtis head a very short list.
The name tricyrtis comes from the Greek “tri” (three) and “kyrtos” (swelling, arched, bulging or humped) which refers to the 3 sack-like nectaries at the base of the tepals. The most common explanation for the name toad lily is that the flowers and leaves are spotted like toads. In addition, the flowers have warty, sack-like (saccate) bumps at the base of the flowers that are “toadish” to some. A variation on the common name is the hairy toad lily, referring to their hirsute nature. The Japanese have a prettier common name for toad lilies: hototogiso which translates to “little cuckoo”, a shy but attractive forest dwelling bird. Hototogisu is also mistakenly used as a cultivar name in the U.S.
A more infamous and blatantly false story for the origin of the name toad lily is widely circulated and appears in many prominent Tricyrtis publications. In it, tricyrtis is called toad lily because a primitive Filipino tribe called the Tasaday rubbed the scented, sticky juice of the plant onto their hands and arms before going frog hunting. The smell was said to attract frogs and the stickiness made it easier to catch them. This story is was part of the greater Tasaday hoax; an intricate plot by the late Manuel Elizalde, an advisor to president Ferdinand Marcos, designed to increase eco-tourism to the Philippines and to bilk money from philanthropists. This fascinating story was first told in the 1972 National Geographic documentary, “The Last Tribes of Mindanao” and the hoax was uncovered in the 1986 20/20 documentary “The Tribe that Never Was.” The entire story was elucidated in the 2003 Robin Hemley book, Invented Eden. The Marcos regime also has another connection with the toad lily. The Filipino endemic species Tricyrtis imeldae is named in honor of Ferdinand’s wife, the infamous shoe-hound, Imelda Marcos. Many taxonomist now consider it nothing more than a disjunct population of Tricyrtis formosana, although the presence of Muslim extremists in the region have prevented it from getting into US cultivation.
The genus Tricyrtis is east Asian in origin. Their native range runs from China, Korea, and Japan in the north to Nepal, Taiwan and the Philippines in the south. This corresponds roughly to U.S. hardiness zones 5 and warmer. In their native habitat they live in partial shade at the edges of forests where there is a break in the tree cover. They are also commonly found on sloped ground along creek beds, and at the edges of road and trail clearings. Tricyrtis live in a wide range of conditions from mountainous regions such as the Himalayas to low-lying, humid, sub-tropical forests. They are always found in regions that receive plentiful rainfall.
The nomenclature and taxonomy of the genus Tricyrtis, like so many plant groups, is tangled and tumultuous. The most comprehensive description of the genus was made in a 1985 monograph by Brian Matthew. His work has been updated by the Flora of China project and by papers describing the newly discovered tricyrtis species.
Toad lilies have hopped from one plant family to another over the last several decades. They have been placed in their own family Tricyrtidaceae, as well as Uvulariaceae, Calochortaceae and Convallariaceae. Most folks still keep the genus Tricyrtis is in the Liliaceae family. The genus Tricyrtis has roughly 20 species (depending on the source), of which only two, Tricyrtis formosana, and Tricyrtis hirta, are common in gardens.