Hail to the Noble Hosta

Yearning for a shot of color in a shady garden, we pack impatiens around astilbes, bleeding hearts and columbines, perennials that can bloom in deep shade. Blinded by our passion for color we have given short shrift to the most majestic of all shade lovers, the noble hosta. “Hostas?” you say. “How boring.” Hey, it ain’t necessarily so. Granted, hostas will not dazzle you with flashy flowers, but their elegant foliage creates a sophisticated and serene woodland landscape. Picture a shaded swath punctuated with leaves of blues and greens in a variety of textures and you have imagined the regal hosta garden.

With hundreds of cultivars available and more coming to market every day, picking and choosing among them can be a daunting task. So to lessen the frustration here is a selection of green, blue, and variegated hostas that are favorites among hosta connoisseurs. Most love the moist deep shade of a woodland garden, although some varieties can tolerate a touch of sun and somewhat drier soil.

The Greens

If you have the space, Empress Wu P1070841
is a stunning choice for the back of the garden. With its massive leaves, 18 inches wide, the Empress is the world’s largest hosta and tops out at about 4 feet, the height of an average five year-old child. Give her regular water and plenty of room to spread.

At the other end of the size spectrum is Crumb Cake P1070851
a dainty 4-inch mound of shiny green leaves that emerge in spring as honey-gold, darkening as the days lengthen. Producing lavender flowers in July little Crumb Cake deserves a special spot in the garden or on center stage in a container.

Another solid green hosta Guacamole P1070840
boasts fragrant showy white flowers in July and August. A medium sized specimen Guacamole’s leaves have distinctive veins and are the color of a ripe avocado, of course.

The final green choice, Dawn’s Early Light, P1070837
will knock your gardening clogs off in early spring when it breaks out of its winter dormancy a dazzling neon yellow. Mellowing to a more sedate chartreuse, the deeply corrugated ruffled leaves add interesting texture to the hosta garden. Topping out at about 20 inches it produces light lavender flowers in early summer.

The Blues

Starting with the Big Daddy of them all, Blue Angel P1070838
grows to 4 feet high and as big around so give it ample elbowroom. The rich blue-green leaves of Blue Angel provide a stunning backdrop to clusters of white bell-shaped flowers in mid summer. This hosta is one of the most resistant to slugs and snails (more on that topic later).

A knockout of a hosta Abiqua Drinking Gourd P1070836
sports huge blue-green leaves that sparkle with droplets of water after a rain. Standing 2 feet tall by 4 feet wide, this stately hosta tolerates heat and humidity and resists slugs.. Little wonder it was named Hosta of the Year in 2014 by the American Hosta Growers Association.

No hosta collection is complete without that classic blue giant, Krossa Regal,
P1070842 (1)
whose wavy leaves fan out into a vase-shaped mound, an unusual form in the hosta community. Anchor it in the back of the garden in light shade for the clearest blue color.

Standing only 8 inches tall, tuck little Blue Mouse Ears P1070833 (2)
next to a rock in a trough garden or in the front of the hosta garden. A real cutie its silver-blue leaves curl in at the edges and support showy lavender flowers in mid-summer. Watch the humming birds flock to this charmer.

The Variegateds

To break up the monotony of all those blues and greens intersperse them with some select variegated specimens, such as Dream Queen P1070834
whose bright blue-green leaves with pale yellow centers will stop you in your tracks. About 2 feet tall with a 5 foot spread its corrugated cupped foliage supports stalks of white blossoms in mid-summer.

If you have bright morning sun in your garden consider June P1070845
whose gold leaves are airbrushed with random streaks of blue-green. In deeper shade the gold fades to lime green, but she is still a stunning plant. The American Hosta Growers Association thought so too; they awarded June Hosta of the Year in 2001. Forming a symmetrical mound a little over a foot tall with a 3 foot spread, it produces pale lavender flowers in late summer and is slug resistant to boot.

In contrast to the round leaves of most hostas, the lance-shaped leaves of Pineapple Upside Down Cake P1070839
offer a pleasing break for the eye. Emerging pure green in early spring the leaves quickly change to a white-gold edged by a rippled thin dark green margin. Lavender flowers spring up in late summer, and at maturity Pineapple Upside Down Cake will be about 4 feet wide and 1 ½ feet tall.

The classic Japanese cultivar Tokudama flavocircinalis P1070843
reverses the color pattern of those other hostas; the leaves have blue green centers and wide gold edges. Again, as with most of the variegated hostas, the deeper the shade the darker the leaves so to enhance the gold margins give it some morning sun. About the same size as Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Tokudama is slow to mature but when it does it’s a real show stopper. Handsome puckered leaves supporting pale lavender blossoms in late spring demand the casual observer pause and take notice.

The Scourges

Now about the snails and slugs – good air circulation is a must. If your hostas are still plagued by snail and slug damage an effective remedy is to encircle each plant with a sprinkling of grit, such as sand, crushed eggshells or diatomaceous earth. Grit damages the delicate underbelly of the varmints causing death. No more problems.

Deer, now that’s another story. To protect his specimen plants one hosta aficionado pierces plastic 35 mm film canisters with several holes, fills the holes with shavings of Irish Spring soap and mounts the canisters on 6 inch wooden dowels every 6 feet in his hosta gardens. The trouble is it’s hard to find 35 mm film in this digital age. As an alternative there are several products available on the market from coyote urine to pepper spray, but these must be applied religiously especially after a rain. Let’s be real; there is little that can be done to deter a hungry doe short of an 8 foot fence or a couple of barking dogs.

The Promise

Despite the scourges it’s hard to imagine any group of plantings that beats the elegance of a mature hosta garden. Each new introduction simply adds to the beauty, a bonus for that group of gardeners who “pick it and plunk it”, those addicts who spot a plant and simply must have it with no thought to the overall garden design. With a hosta garden there’s no need to worry that the latest purchase will look out of place, clash with its neighbors or invade their territory. Each new hosta will fit right in with its siblings and work with them to add a touch more class to your shady garden. That’s a promise.

Plant Sources

New Hampshire Hostas

Plant Delights Nursery

Green Mountain Hosta

Special thanks to Gerry Hicks of Maine Hosta (Edgecomb, ME) for sharing his vast knowledge of hostas and invaluable help with the photos.