Hosta's lush leaves lure growers

These perennials are carefree and come in a wide variety of colors

In The Garden

May 26, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Years ago, while mowing the lawn for the first time at our first house, I noticed a big clump of furled green leaves coming through the ground near the well cap. I thought it was skunk cabbage -- a native, but not something I wanted -- so I mowed it down. It didn't smell like skunk cabbage, but for several years I mowed it anyway. Then one summer we went away. By the time we got home, the clump had grown lush and leafy and was decorated with lovely trumpet-flowered spikes. Hosta, I realized, not skunk cabbage. I let it grow, though I still didn't like it much. Once the flowers were spent, that lone mid-green clump was bland, uninspiring.

Then we moved to a place with big blotches of dappled shade that needed something eye-catching to fill them. The answer, I discovered to my surprise, was hosta. My boring old skunk cabbage doppelganger has tons of beautiful cousins -- striated, textured and variegated in both subtle and startling hues -- that add long-lived beauty to dappled shade.

"There's so much diversity in hostas," says Greg Jones, owner of Gilbert H. Wild & Son, in Sarcoxie, Mo. "The yellows and greens to blues and the variegations and shapes of the leaves are just wonderful."

Named for Nicholas Tomas Host (1761-1834), hostas, aka plaintain lilies, originate in Japan, Korea and China -- monsoon country -- and are often found in volcanic and stony soil. Yet virtually all members of this huge family thrive here in non-volcanic Maryland.

"Out of the 4,000 named varieties of hosta, you might find five that don't do well here," says Chick Wasitis, partner in Bridgewood Gardens in Anna- polis, which sells about 500 different hostas through its mail-order catalog.

Most hostas bloom in late summer on dramatic spikes called scapes, but it's the foliage, which looks beautiful throughout the season, that's the real draw.

"Hostas are nice accent plants and look great between other flowering plants," says Monika Burwell, owner of Earthly Pursuits, a garden design and perennial mail-order company in Baltimore. "The chartreuse and the blue hostas look so refreshing next to spring-flowering perennials like euphorbia."

Varieties

Hosta foliage can be seersucker-puckered, smooth, grooved, ruffled-edged or something in between. Some plants can grow six feet tall by six wide; others are practically ground covers. Leaf colors range from the purply blue-green of 'Halcyon' to dusty blue, hunter green, avocado, lime, gold and creamy lemon.

Some have dark interiors and light margins, (for example, 'Francee' and 'Twilight'). Others have light interiors and dark margins ('Gold Standard' and 'Variegata'). A few have fragrant blooms. Burwell describes the scent of a recent Kurt Bluemel introduction, 'Aphrodite,' as "out of this world." Additionally, hostas send out sports (slightly mutated shoots) to add to the choices. With so many options, choosing just a few can be tough, though cost can help narrow it down.

"The older varieties are cheaper," observes Jones.

Wasitis, a self-described "hosta geek," grows 1,000 varieties but has about 15 favorite oldies, among them: 'Shade Fanfare,' 'Halcyon' ("the best blue hosta you can buy for small gardens"), 'Antioch,' 'Krossa Regal' (grayish blue and vase-shaped); 'Piedmont Gold,' 'Inniswood' and 'Blue Angel,' which grows fast and gets very large.

Culture

Once established, hostas are nearly maintenance free. Establishing them well begins with location. They need some bright but not scorching light -- dappled light or oblique morning or late afternoon to early evening sun work best.

"All hostas will grow in direct sun, but look far better in shade," says Wasitis, though he adds that the yellow-leafed varieties turn a brighter yellow with more sun. The more shaded, the less yellow they are. Yet the blues are better in shade because the blue color is actually the result of a waxy coating on the leaves. In hot sun, the coating melts.

Hostas will grow in a variety of soils, though loamy, well-drained soil seems to make them happiest, but they need moisture. Hostas need regular watering while establishing root systems, but after several years, need attention only in droughts.

The only problem with hostas is that deer and slugs both adore them. Burwell says fragrant plants nearby seem to help deter deer. Slugs rarely if ever cross limestone around plants.

Sources

Gilbert H. Wild & Son

P.O. Box 338

Dept. WD302H

Sarcoxie, MO 64862-6831

888-449-4537

www.gilberthwild.com

Bridgewood Gardens

1103 Honeysuckle Lane

Annapolis, MD 21401

410-849-5640

www.bridgewoodgardens. com

Earthly Pursuits

2901 Kuntz Road

Windsor Mill, MD 21244

410-496-2523

www.earthlypursuits.net

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