Plant of the Week: Hostas
Plant of the Week
Hubris: An excessive pride or self-confidence. Over the years I’ve grown lots of hostas in my garden and gradually began to believe that I had figured them out. Then they began disappearing from my beds. They never died dramatically; instead they just got smaller each year and then finally failed to return one spring. What gives with these workhorses of the shade garden?
Hostas are native to northeast Asia and are classified, now that the overly large lily family has been broken up, as a member of the asparagus family. From two dozen to 40-some species are recognized, depending on the specialist being consulted. Many of the old “species” hostas that were introduced into Western gardens almost 200 years ago are now often considered cultivars, thus explaining the disparity in the number of true botanical species.
Few gardeners grow the species hostas, instead preferring the thousands of named cultivars in gardens and nurseries. Because all hostas contain the same chromosome count they hybridize freely and a tremendous array of variation in plant size, leaf color and flower form has been produced. Most hostas are grown for their colorful foliage but a few, such as the venerable old ‘Royal Standard’ (a hybrid of H. plantaginea), is my favorite August flowering perennial.
Twenty-five years ago, hostas were hot items in the garden trade and most garden centers offered 30 to 40 different cultivars in an array of shapes, sizes and colors. But, as gardens became fully stocked with these large plants which often have foliage masses 5 feet across, demand dwindled and the boom went bust. Though by no means rare, the variety and hype about hostas has cooled in the past decade.
I began my current hosta planting 20 years ago when we moved into our current home. The garden was shady and bare so hostas made a lot of sense so I gathered in a wide assortment and planted them along various garden paths. The garden space was irrigated though during the summer plants were seldom ever watered in an excessive fashion. New hostas were added as I discovered them in local nurseries and made room for additional beds.
Some plants, such as ‘Francis Williams’, an old standby that is a selection of H. sieboldiana, the related‘Great Expectations’ and the miniature ‘Ginkgo Craig’ just never did well for me and disappeared within a couple years. Most hostas though reached peak size about five years after planting, looked good for a couple years and then began a gradual decline. A few cultivars, such as the enormous ‘Sum and Substance’, looked great one season and the next was dramatically smaller and gone the following spring.
My conclusion from two decades of watching hostas come and go is that many of the Hosta sieboldiana selections are best suited for cooler, northern gardens while selections and hybrids of H. plantaginea are better in the heat of the South. Other than that very basic observation, a lot of trial and error is involved in identifying the best hosta for your garden.
The second observation is that hostas need to be divided after about five years. In a deep, rich soil the time period can be delayed a bit longer, but eventually plants consume all the nutrients from a given area and severe competition between adjacent plants in the same clump will begin the decline process. Replenish the soil with lots of compost or relocated the divisions to be saved to a new area. In the South hostas can be divided in late fall, winter or spring but I prefer late winter division.
Finally, hostas are not very drought tolerant. Some prized seedling hostas I had nursed along for 15 years disappeared in a single season because I failed to keep them sufficiently moist during a late season drought when my irrigation system was on the fritz.
Though hostas are generally easy to care for and adaptable, they do need some occasional attention. I’ll be more mindful of the new plants I’ve added to my garden and divide them before they begin their slow slide into oblivion.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Retired Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - July 3, 2014
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.