Hail to the Noble Hosta

Yearning for a shot of color in a shady garden, we pack coleus and impatiens around astilbes, bleeding hearts and columbines – annuals and perennials that will 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 cry. “How boring.” 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, greens and golds in many textures and shapes and you have created a regal hosta garden.

First introduced in 1812 and named for the Austrian botanist, Nicholas Thomas Host, today the genus boasts multiple species and hundreds of cultivars. Such a cornucopia makes picking and choosing among them a daunting task. To mitigate 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 sun and drier soil.

The Greens

If you have the space, Empress Wu 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 5 feet, the height of an average first grader. Give her regular water and plenty of room to spread; the Empress expands to 8′ when full grown.

Only slightly smaller is the legendary Sum and Substance (4.5′ tall by 6′ wide) a cultivar whose chartreuse heart-shaped leaves turn golden in sun. One of the few hostas that thrives in sun, be sure to give it plenty of water and rich soil.

Another solid green hosta Guacamole boasts fragrant showy white flowers in July and August.

A medium sized specimen topping out at about 3′ tall by 4′ wide, Guacamole’s leaves have distinctive veins and are the color of a ripe avocado, of course.

The final green choice, Hosta capitata is the smallest of the selections , rarely exceeding a foot in height.

Sporting ruffled wavy leaves and lavender flowers, this species can be reliably propagated from its seed. Harvest the pods in the fall, clean and store them until the spring planting season. Be sure to give this species a space of its own; it does not like to share with under plantings.

The Blues

No hosta collection is complete without that classic blue giant, Krossa Regal, 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 or plant it in a container to brighten up a dreary site. 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 sports huge corrugated powder blue leaves that sparkle with droplets of water after a rain.

Standing 2 feet tall by 4 feet wide, this stately hosta produces white flowers in early summer and tolerates heat and humidity and resists slugs. Little wonder it was named Hosta of the Year in 2014 by the American Hosta Growers Association.

Standing only 8 inches tall, tuck little Blue Mouse Ears
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.

No discussion of blue hostas would be complete without the inclusion of the legendary Halcyon, a slow grower of medium size.

Although it produces showy pale lilac flowers in summer, it is prized for its spear shaped, heavily textured leaves which retain their blue color well into fall

The Variegateds

To break up the monotony of all those blues and greens intersperse them with some select variegated specimens, such as Frances Williams whose bright blue-green leaves with chartreuse margins will stop you in your tracks.

About 2 feet tall with a 5 foot spread its puckered cupped foliage supports stalks of white blossoms in mid-summer.

If you have bright morning sun in your garden consider June, a sport of Halcyon, whose gold leaves are airbrushed with random streaks of blue-green on the edges.

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 most hostas, Paul’s Glory tolerates some sun. Emerging in the spring its chartreuse heart-shaped leaves edged in blue turn golden as spring merges into summer, changing to white in full sun – a chameleon in the hosta family.

A medium sized hosta, Paul’s Glory is fast growing so don’t get too close.

The final choice for a variegated hosta is the well-behaved Wide Brim. Its dark blue-green leaves tinged with creamy margins form a low round mound.

One of the most popular variegated hostas, Wide Brim is admired for its deeply puckered leaves, adding valued texture to the woodland garden.

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 their death. End of problem.

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”, addicts who spot a plant and simply must have it with no consideration of 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

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