Silly lilies: Beauty with humour

Easter lilies are in grocery stores everywhere right now. They’re wonderful plants–heralding the coming of spring, symbolizing new beginnings (for both Christians and Pagans) and are/were absolutely de rigueur as an OTT decor flourish, especially during the fabulousity that was the 90’s. But as much as I respect and admire the glamour of Lilium longiflorum, my heart belongs to two lilies of a much more demure, OK, short, clumping habit that make up for their lack of in-your-faceness with an undeniable sense of humour.

Trout lilies before opening

One of these are Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum). In another couple of weeks they’ll start carpeting the natural woodland where I live on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. They’re native to the eastern half of North America and thrive in rich, moist woodlands and banks of streams in part shade to shade. If you’re into botany and love a good Plants Community reference: They are often present with Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). Forming colonies thick enough to completely cover a forest floor for several metres, they pop up in early spring and are gone by June. They’re good pollinators and do a fantastic job of bedazzling a drab forest floor with their bright yellow blooms but what I love most about them are those crazy leaves.

Wildflower with speckled leaves

Busting out in their own distinctive camouflage pattern of bright green and dusky purple, Trout lily leaves are a sight to behold, inspiring the flower’s common name. I love how this ephemeral beauty is named after a fish. And I think it’s an apt name, too, having had the indescribable experience of holding a freshly caught trout just long enough to get a good look at its beautiful sequin-y scales. (I’m a big catch-and-release fan.) I admire the person who first cast eyes on Erythronium americanum back in the day and connected the flower to the fish, perhaps declaring “Behold the mystical brethren of our rivers’ pride, lord of freshwaters in flashing garments of shimmering tapestry.” Or something to that effect.

Trout lilies can be bought from reputable garden nurseries specializing in natives. They’re a lovely addition to a garden with a woodland-theme, especially in areas where you get some spring sunshine before nearby trees sprout their leaves and cast the garden in shade. In my neck of the woods, they pop up at the same time as trilliums and wild violets–a stunning sight to behold. The photo directly below shows Trout lilies surrounding a gorgeous burgundy wine-hued Red Trillium (Trillium erectum). This trillium has collected other common names much more imaginative than “Red” including Ill-scented Wake-robin and Stinking Benjamin. So the Trout lilies are in good company, moniker-wise.

Trout lilies with a trilium

If you love the Trout lilies quirky look and want to keep the colour coming in a woodland-themed garden, you can’t go wrong with my other favourite silly-named lily: the Toad lily. It’s not native, originally hailing from regions in eastern Asia, including Japan. But it’s made itself quite a name in this part of the world for its orchid-like flowers. The plant blooms generously from late summer well into fall–unusual for most shade plants. Directly below is a terrific massing of Tricyrtis formosana ‘Gilt Edge’. For more varieties, check out the images here, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Toad lilies

There’s a story that got a lot of attention, thanks to a National Geographic documentary that aired in the early 1970’s, about how this lily came to be called Toad. It involves a tribe in the Philippines, toad hunting and a dastardly plot to increase eco-tourism. The whole story also includes how Toad lilies have a connection to Imelda Marcos, she of the infamous shoe collection. Seriously.

But chances are this flower, from the genus Trycyrtis, really got its name from the fact that its blossoms are speckled and the nectaries at the base of each bloom have little bumps which could, if you squint your eyes, be compared to the bumpy bits on a frog. Ho-hum. But Toad lilies have an allure all their own and that’s the main thing.

Trout lilies and Toad lilies both love the same moist, rich, well-drained soil so the two plants work well as a team. Trouts send up their bright yellow blooms at the very beginning of the gardening season and then Toads offer up baroque splodges of cream, pink and deep purple in the fall. And who wouldn’t want to brag that one of the secrets to a magical woodland garden is to invite the help of some fish and frogs.

Note: All photos in this post were taken by me in May in 2019 and 2020.

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