Paul’s Plant Pick Week 6: Hostas

Hostas practically define shade gardening. And unlike most other plant groups, they can do it boldly or subtly, with a shout or a whisper. Want a monstrous, in-your-face hosta? Try ‘T-Rex.’ It’ll get nearly three-feet tall and six-feet wide! With 18-inch leaves, no less. At the other end of the scale there’s ‘Blue Mouse Ears,’ which grows only six-inches tall and maybe a foot wide. Having such a vast range of options is one of the things that make the genus Hosta so versatile.

Beyond size, however, is the astonishing array of color, variegation, leaf shape, and texture. I’ve always been partial to the blue hostas, but the green ones come in so many different shades of green that you’d be hard pressed to find one you didn’t like. And the variegation on the leaf margins only adds to their beauty and interest. Leaf shape varies considerably, from heart-shaped to lance-like to cupped. But leaf texture, whether smooth, veined, corrugated, or puckered, is what I find most interesting.

And let’s not forget fragrance, because the flowers of some – though not all – varieties have a heady scent that I find intoxicating. I’d describe it as a sweet, floral perfume, sort of like honeysuckle.

Hostas are native to Japan, China, and Korea, but they like it here just fine. They grow best in a rich soil that’s high in organic matter and drains well, but they can adapt to heavy soils as well. They also need fairly even moisture. But most of all, they need shade. A couple of hours of morning sun is fine, as is dappled light throughout the day, but afternoon shade is essential. Even under those conditions, hostas can become stressed in the heat of summer. Generally speaking, the blue varieties need even more shade than the green ones.

If you routinely enrich your soil with compost, you can skip the use of fertilizer. If you don’t, consider feeding your hostas twice a year – once in early spring and again when flowers begin to form. Go light on the phosphorous and potassium, and a little heavier on the nitrogen.

The bane of hosta lovers are slugs, for they can decimate a plant in no time. I’ve tried every home remedy imaginable, from beer traps to salt, but Sluggo, a product made of iron phosphate, works great for me.

Finally, lest you think plant geeks lack a sense of humor, consider the names of hosta varieties. There’s Guacamole (and its progeny, Avocado), Captain Kirk, Humpback Whale, Popcorn, and Abiqua Drinking Gourd. Strangely, however, no one has come with the obvious – Hosta La Vista, Baby!

Fun Factoid: The genus Hosta was named in 1812 in honor of the Austrian botanist Nicholas Thomas Host. Apparently no one bothered to tell that to German botanist Kurt Sprengel, who in 1817 named the plant Funkia in honor of his friend Heinrich Funk. If we could turn back the hands of time, I’d vote for Funkia any day of the week.