By Stephanie Hudak
Hostas and ferns have always been my favorite plants. I could own every variety available and still search for more. So wouldn’t you know, my house sits on an acre of land with no trees. The only ones that are growing here now are what I’ve planted and it will be years before they can give any measureable shade. So I can only yearn for the treasured ones I used to have and lust after all the new varieties available. But for those of you who do have shade gardens, I thought I would share some interesting facts about hostas and tell you about some of the new, hot plants available.
I boldly said that I could own every variety available. Well, knowing that there are more than 6,000 named hosta varieties out there, that might have been a stretch. Really though, of that 6,000 probably only 500 or so would be truly worthy plants. So many of them are “look alikes.” Tony Avent, founder of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina, has what he calls the “10-foot test” – “if you can’t tell what it is from 10 feet away without a label, throw it out”. By the way – if you have never visited Plant Delights, put that on your trip list. There is a website if you would rather travel by the internet (www.plantdelights.com). Tony Avent started his hosta breeding business over 29 years ago. I can recall walking through his display garden being “wowed” by all the unusual varieties back then. In those 29 years he has only created more and more unique colors combinations with lots of tough garden quality built into the plant.
Know what the biggest selling attributes are for hostas? Big and blue. Seems that most folks want a hosta that covers lots of ground; the most for your money I guess. And they like the color blue. I have to agree that big and blue makes for a major impact. If you want really big then look for ‘Empress Wu,’ which gets about 4 feet tall and 7 feet across. By anyone’s standards that is big. While we are talking about blue hostas, we in the South need to know what happens to that cool color in our intense heat. The blue color comes from the wax coating on the leaves. When the hosta leaves first come up in late spring they have that perfect color we bought it for. Then as the temperatures rise, that wax starts to melt away, and with it the lovely blue tint. Rain isn’t a friend either as it also will wash off the wax. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have blue hostas that hold up for us. One that is easy to find, at least at independent nurseries, is ‘Touch of Class.’ It will do well because it has a double layer of wax. I haven’t seen either of these two locally but I’m sure they can be found in catalogs: ‘Pewterware’ and ‘Blue Jay.’
My personal favorite hostas are the yellows and variegated whites. To explain how their colors work I’m going to throw a couple $5 words at you – lutescent or viridescent – which refer to their genetic characteristics. Hostas with lutescent genes will emerge green and turn to yellow or come out yellow and evolve to white. Viridescent ones start out bright and fade to green. So when your eye is drawn to that bright yellow-leafed hosta be aware that it will probably change as the season wears on. Pretty much all gold, white or variegated hostas are going be one or the other. Most of us old-time gardeners who bought hostas years ago probably got Hosta plantaginea as our first shade plants. Rightfully so, because it is one of the most sweet smelling hostas available. And it is still around in different forms because if a breeder wants to bring fragrance to his new cultivar that is the one he uses. Besides the sweet smell, plantaginea also has good vigor and is more sun-tolerant. This old standby is still readily available. Imagine the scent a large sweep of these would produce. A favorite hosta of mine is ‘Fragrant Bouquet.’ It has a variegated leaf that is more interesting that plantaginea but with its lovely fragrance. Several are growing in the Welcome Center Garden.
How about heat-tolerant hostas. Actually, there aren’t any. What we need to look for is a hosta with a “low chill requirement’ – which means it doesn’t need much of a winter. Well, how the heck are we to know that, cause I don’t recall ever seeing chill factor mentioned on the labels. The easiest way is to look for the ones that pop out of the ground the earliest. Good ole plantaginea has no dormancy requirements – just another reason to have it around. And look for hostas with the word ‘venusta’ in its botanical name as they have very low chill requirement. A tried and true hosta that I often use in containers is ‘Golden Tiara’ – a green and gold variety.
Breeders spend endless years and countless dollars to come up with the next great hosta, but sometimes naturally occurring mutations bring us big winners. In the late 1980s we got ‘Halcyon,’ a beautiful blue-leaved hosta. From that has evolved ‘First Frost,’ intense blue leaves with creamy yellow margins (in the Welcome Garden), and ‘June,’ heart shaped leaves with a creamy center and blue-green margins (great for containers).
Unfortunately, hostas are deer candy so for those who share their garden with these little darlings, you may have to keep them sprayed or try using them in containers out of their reach. Hostas in containers take on a whole new look when they are raised above the ground. Plant some and invite me over so I can see them while I wait for my trees to grow. Sending hugs – be sure to share.