In sticky June and July, the toad lily blooms in the thickets and roadsides of its native Taiwan. It’s botanical name is Tricyrtis stolonifera, part of a family of herbaceous perennials with creeping rhizomes—spreading underground root clumps that propagate the plant underground. Toad lily is the English name, bestowed by the horticulturalists who were also perennially creeping through Asia in search of specimens for Britain’s botanical gardens. A Taiwanese would admire the toad lily by another name, but it would smell as sweet.
According to one description, “The stems are typically erect or maybe ascending, and sometimes branched from the middle to the top.” Typically, maybe, sometimes? A botanical drawing published in London in 1914, shows stems that are definitely upright, as does the pencil drawing I find in a gallery in my own Northern California town exactly 100 years later. The art of botanical drawing might have died out with photography, except that pencil and paint are more precise, showing an idealized typical plant, rather than a flawed individual. Drawings also convey the triple pleasure of the loveliness of the artful rendering, and of the plant itself, and of its careful contemplation.
The drawing in the gallery is remarkably like its predecessor. In both we see long, pointed leaves, subtly striped in olive and yellow green on their undersides, while the uppers are speckled with large green dots. The showy purple flowers, also striped on the outside and spotted inside, are solitary and bisexual, as were some of the creeping plant collectors no doubt, though the law penalized such behavior in Britain until 1967. Fortunately, plants are permitted a morality of their own. Within the six free tepals (petals and sepals) of the trumpet-shaped flower, there are six pollen-producing stamens which pollinate the many eggs contained in the toad lily’s three-roomed ovary, producing fruits that release many small seeds when ripe, allowing the plant to spread even beyond the range of its creeping rizomes. Better safe than sorry, oh noble spotted lily.