Hosta ‘Nancy Lindsay’. (Hosta ‘Windsor Gold’)
Leaves emerge mottled with a rich butter yellow spotting, later fading to mid green. The flowers are well coloured, mauvey-pink, held well above the leaves. A Hosta fortunei type. Leaves below 30cm
Hostas are the perennial shade foliage plant par excellence. Only ferns, perhaps, can match them on this stage. Hostas originate from the Far East, particularly damp woodland areas in Japan. Named in honour of Nicholas Thomas Host in 1812, there was a brief period when they were reclassified as Funkia in 1817 but this name did not gain favour and they reverted to hosta. Funkia, however, is still used in some European countries today.
The lighting experienced by a hosta can have a profound effect on its colouration. The same variety grown in two different lighting situations can look remarkably different. A good example of this is hosta June which has very subdued, subtle colouration and variegation when grown in low light. By contrast, in strong light, it can look positively garish.
All hostas grow well in shade. Many will also tolerate a degree of stronger sunlight, for all or part of the day. Varieties which show yellowish colouration often have this characteristic. Obvious examples include Sum and Substance and its sports, Sun Power, Gold Standard, Royal Standard, Guacamole, Avocado, Stained Glass, Cathedral Windows, June Fever.
Although blue hostas will grow in sunny situations, this is not ideal. The best deep glaucous colours are only seen in the shade.
Too much exposure to sunlight may often result in premature bleaching, at the very least, and scorching may occur in particularly pale varieties and at the edges of plants with pale marginal variegation. However, varieties of near identical appearance can perform very differently in these circumstances. For example, Frances Williams suffers from marginal scorching whereas its younger cousin, Olive Bailey Langdon, is said to be free of this failing.
In some varieties, too much light will result in early loss of variegation during the season through ‘greening’ of previously pale areas of variegation. A couple of examples are Whirlwind and Warpaint.
Hostas enjoy the fabled “moist, well-drained soil”; which plant wouldn’t? However, it is often surprising how poor a soil they will tolerate. The usual criticism levelled at hostas is their vulnerability to slugs and snails and many people are put off them because of this. This is a shame because there are many ways to mitigate against this. Choosing the right variety is a good start. In general, the larger varieties are more resistant than the small ones. Furthermore, we can now breed hostas which are relatively resistant. For example, many tetraploid (double the normal chromosome complement) hostas are now available. Tetraploidy confers a thicker, tougher leaf to the hosta which makes it less palatable to slugs. Another strategy is to overwhelm the slugs with quantity and variety. By having many different varieties there will inevitably be some that are more susceptible than others and can be regarded as sacrificial. You will then find that other varieties survive relatively unscathed. Slug pellets, beer traps, crushed egg shells, cinders etc all have their place too.
It is important to realise that hostas often take several years to mature, ie to show their true stature and identity. This applies particularly to the large hostas. A hosta recently out of micro propagation will necessarily be small and its colours poorly developed. It may take a few years in the ground for this plant to assume its true identity.
If you are not prepared to ‘wait forever’ for maturation of your hosta, it is always worth considering another variety of the same, or similar, appearance but with increased vigour. This characteristic is often a feature of modern sports which have been selected for this reason rather than distinctive appearance. Examples include Dream Queen and Dream Weaver, both faster growing sports of that old favourite, Great Expectations. Similarly with American Halo and its parent Northern Halo.
When choosing hostas, many people are overwhelmed by the vast choice available with numbers of named cultivars running into the thousands. Remember, however, that many of these look identical and differ from each other in some other respect, such as vigour, sun tolerance etc, as indicated previously. Viewing online lists and poll results for “favourite hostas” often brings up the same names time and again and these can be selected with a degree of confidence. A couple of such lists are the American Hosta Growers Association Hosta of the Year and the Top 100 hostas poll on the GardenWeb hosta forum.
A useful starting point when choosing hostas, is a consideration of their ultimate size. A common categorisation, based on height is: miniature <15cm, small 15-25cm, medium 25-46cm, large 46-71cm, giant >71cm.
Hostas are generally easy to grow and propagate. There is a hosta to suit any size of garden. Modern sports and hybrids overcome many of the failings of their parents.
So, do a little research to discover the sort of plant you like, find a specialist hosta grower near you or online (hostas travel easily by post), be bold and confidently take the plunge into the world of hostas.