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Plant Profiles: Tricyrtis


Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


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Small, fall-blooming woodland perennial

Toad Lily

Light shade, even moisture, humus-rich soil

Hot winds and no water are true purgatory for a toady

Strictly front-of-the-shade border plant, preferably massed

Woodland perennial

In the category of unfathomable mysteries, I nominate the flower of Tricyrtis formosana 'Samurai'. To even begin unraveling this one, you'll need to observe this gem from a distance of no more than six inches from your face (adjust distance according to age).

Its style (as in a plant's sexual parts) looks like a giraffe's neck, its anthers look like the eyes on a slug, its stamens arch like showerheads, and its six differently shaded petals (actually tepals) alternate like men and women at a dinner table. This whole surrealistic fantasy stands on three pairs of green rubber boots (swollen spurs that are part of the petals), which, kicked three times, reveal the source of the plant's Latin name: tri, meaning three, and kyrtos, meaning humped.

Unless massed and displayed prominently - up front and center where you're inclined to sit and gaze into its face - the blossom of T. formosana 'Samurai' is easy to miss in the garden (though its gold-edged foliage does look good for months). But one close encounter with its amethystine reflection and you'll soon see why this selection - if not the entire genus - is among today's trendiest plants.

Its subtlety has snob appeal (what you call your basic "connoisseur plant"). Add bonus points for flowering both late and in shade. Then there's the unsung-genus factor, a de facto status for any trendy plant. Only a decade ago, if you wanted a toad lily, you could find T. hirta and little else. Today, hybridizers from Oregon, Germany and Japan are hurriedly breeding them for bigger flowers and better habits; at last count, more than forty distinct selections were carried by nurseries.

Tricyrtis is native to Korea, Japan, China even the Philippines (botanical name, T. imeldae. Must be the boots.). All are arching clumps of two- to three-foot woodland plants that typically bloom mid-August to October, in flower colors ranging from yellow and white to purple-flecked. Leaves may be bright gold, glossy green, or subtly variegated, and culture is easy: even moisture and light shade, rarely sun.

The toad lily is an instant attention-getter once you mention its common name. Unfortunately, the truth is less than enchanting, having nothing to do with bewitched princes exiled on floating pads. Instead, the name has been traced to the Philippine species, T. imeldae, which grows in a region that is home to the Tasaday tribe. Tasaday hunters would crush the plant's many parts and leave the juice on their hands because the scent attracted frogs, while the sticky juice made them less slippery to catch.

Granted, this does little to explain the toad or the lily, but it does make a much nicer nickname than "suckered frog".

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.