The toad lily is an unusual flower that is not widely grown, except by those "in the know". But it is a gem of subtle charm. The beautifully-spotted purple and white flowers are carried elegantly on tall stems to about 80cm and each stem carries several upward-facing flowers. The most common kinds are either white with fine purple spotting or pale purple with darker purple spotting. The individual flowers are about three centimetres across and the flower spike has several flowers from brown buds spaced along its length.
Toad lily is worth looking for because it has the advantage that it is late-flowering. It only begins to flower in late summer and continues in September. It is useful to have some plants that come on late in the growing season to bring fresh colour to the garden as so many other flowers are tailing off or finished for the year. The purple colour is good with the many yellow shades of autumn.
Being related to lily-of-the-valley, it is not surprising that toad lily likes cool woodland conditions to thrive. It likes soil with plenty of well-rotted organic material, especially well- rotted leaf mould. This holds moisture in the soil but is free-draining at the same time. All kinds like some shade and can tolerate quite heavy shade, although this is likely to delay flowering, especially in colder areas. It likes much the same conditions as ferns and looks very well with ferns nearby.
Although it appears a bit delicate, toad lily is quite tough and reliably persistent. It does not die out easily. It needs to have the right conditions to grow and flower well but, when these are supplied, it is a ready grower. This is much the same for lily-of-the-valley, which can be slow to get going but when it has the right soil and position can be difficult to stop.
The toad lily spreads by underground rhizomes to make a welcome clump but it is not an invasive plant. The leaves are very like those of lily-of-the-valley, broad and veined. Look out for this beauty and get it going in a suitable place, dividing it to make more plants to create a good swathe of it in a lightly shaded place. It is originally from high altitude woodland in Taiwan and it is fully hardy in a normal winter.
'I am new to gardening and just moved to a new house. Our back garden is patchy, weedy and full of small stones. The soil is a greyish colour. We have mowed it a few times, raked it, stabbed the soil with a pitch fork and lightly covered it with lawn fertilizer, then watered it. Over a month later, the lawn hasn't improved. Any tips?"
Fiona D, Dublin 5
Patience! If you mow regularly and apply lawn-fertiliser a couple of times a year, you will have a good lawn, no matter how it looks now. What you have done is going in the right direction. Grey soil can be an indication of low oxygen levels, possibly due to being wet in winter. But the soil will improve as the grass roots delve down and open it up, allowing more air to penetrate.
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