Hosta is a genus that consists of a number of attractive flowering shrubs that are no longer only grown in shade gardens. We introduce them and provide care tips.
Together with coral bells, hostas, also known as plantain lilies, are one of the most beautiful flowering shrubs. Most of the 40 or so wild species originate from Japan, some are also native to China and Korea. They belong to the family Asparagaceae and predominantly live in cool, damp mountain forests in humus-rich, evenly moist soils. Due to their clear leaf shape with veins that look almost graphic, the herbaceous perennials are highly valued in Japan and have been grown there as ornamental plants for centuries.
In 2009, the hosta was chosen as shrub of the year by the Association of German Shrub Growers. There are plenty of reasons for this: With its large, decorative leaves, the attractive, winter-hardy perennial adds variety to any shady bed, but is equally suited to plant pot gardens. In choosing the plant, the organization also wanted to make the distinctive but low-maintenance perennial even more widely known and promote a greater variety of plants for German gardens.
Appearance and Growth
Hostas come in both miniature and XXL forms. Depending on the species and variety, the cordate to spatulate or lanceolate leaves of hosta are cream white, yellow-green, steel blue, or dark green, and often multicolored and decoratively patterned. Some varieties have a beautiful golden-yellow leaf color. Siebold's plantain lily (Hosta sieboldii) is characterized by medium green leaves with a narrow white edge.
All hostas grow relatively slowly. They form thick, fleshy rootstock (rhizomes) and sometimes additional runners, spreading above them in the flower bed. The mostly hanging, white to purple bell-shaped flowers are in ear-shaped inflorescences on long stems that are either bare or have few very leaves.
Location and Soil
With their large leaves, the perennials have adapted to partially shaded to shaded locations, which should be cool and consistently humid. The soil should be humus-rich, sandy to loamy, and fresh to moderately moist.
Unlike all other species of hosta, Hosta plantaginea is able to tolerate warm, sunny locations – only then will this species bloom with luxuriant white flowers that release a strong fragrance. This species flowers between August and September; later than all other hostas, which bloom in June and July. They should only be put in full sunlight if the soil is sufficiently moist. The perennials are slightly vulnerable to late frosts in locations that are exposed to wind.
Hostas can be planted between spring and fall. Wait until the last frosts have passed in May, so that the young plants do not get an unpleasant surprise. The planting distance varies greatly depending on the species and variety: It’s best to check the plant label.
Hostas are naturally long-lived and get more and more beautiful over the years if they’re left to grow undisturbed. It is only necessary to divide your hostas if the clump becomes too big or you are propagating the plants.
The leaves of the hosta turn yellow in fall and usually decompose on their own, as they are very soft. If necessary, you can simply remove any remaining leaves in spring. Hostas enjoy being fed: Young plants should be fertilized in spring with some mature compost, so that they can quickly develop into impressive specimens.
Important care tip for hostas grown in pots: The plants needs to be watered well on a regular basis, because lots of water evaporates from the large leaves. However, this is usually not a problem for the robust perennials if the dry period is not too long.
Overwintering or Winter Protection
The hosta in itself is very winter hardy and does not need any help with overwintering. This is especially true of hostas planted in open ground. In very cold regions, however, there’s no harm in moving hostas in pots to a sheltered location close to the wall of the house. Using light protection such as jute or brushwood is recommended during severe frosts. Protect pots against ground frost by putting them on wooden boards or Styrofoam. Hostas should be overwintered outdoors in any case.
Hostas are a must for partially shaded to shady beds with humus-rich soil in woodland and shade gardens, and with so many different varieties available, they’re a great plant to collect. It’s definitely worth reserving a few spots for them in semi-shaded areas of Japanese gardens. They go well with rhododendrons and other woodland plants, and enjoy mixing with less competitive perennials and shrubs, without crowding them out. You can create beautiful visual effects by combining hostas with shade grasses like Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa), different ferns, Rodgersia, and other ornamental shrubs.
Hostas are also excellent as winter-hardy potted plants and are surprisingly resilient to temporary dry periods in the garden, provided they are not in full sunlight. The flowering stems look very elegant as cut flowers in a vase.
Important Species and Varieties
The garden hybrids of hosta vary greatly in size: Small-leaved miniatures like ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ are barely 7.87 inches tall, the impressive giant blue hostas (Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’) and their inflorescences reach heights of 31 inches and after a few years, can easily occupy over a square yard of space in the flower bed. One parent of the Hosta fortunei is the giant blue hosta (Hosta sieboldiana) and the other is unknown. From the Japanese Hosta Undulata comes the one-striped wavy plantain lily (Hosta undulata ‘Univittata’) cultivar. The blue plantain lily has the most beautiful flowers of all hostas. Things to consider are the future location of the hosta and personal taste: Given the great diversity of hosta species and varieties, there’s a specimen for every garden.
To propagate, divide the rootstock in spring or fall using a sharp spade. However, since the herbaceous perennials grow quite slowly, the yield of daughter plants is not particularly high. This is also the reason why hostas are relatively expensive.
Diseases and Pests
The main enemies of the hosta are slugs – there is hardly any other plant that they enjoy more than the young shoots of the hosta in spring. If there are lots of snails and slugs in your garden, you should protect the plants in early spring using slug pellets. Another protective measure against the pesky creatures: Put the leafy beauties in a raised container. An etagere with a collection of different hosta varieties is a great addition to a partially shaded patio. You can also achieve interesting unique looks with large tubs in the flower bed. You can now also find some slug-resistant varieties of hosta: Keep an eye out for this when purchasing.
Hosta plants can be affected by a very specific pathogen, Hosta Virus X (HVX), which has been widespread since the turn of the century. You can identify an infected hosta plant by its unusually marked leaves or mottled leaves with collapsed tissue and stunted growth. Infected plants should be removed from the flower bed immediately and disposed of in your household garbage, to prevent the virus from spreading to healthy hostas.
Frequently Asked Questions
When do hostas sprout?
Hosta plants sprout in spring.
What kind of soil does a hosta plant need?
Hostas prefer fresh to moist, sandy-loam and humus-rich soils.
What can you use to fertilize hostas?
Hosta plants – especially young specimens – should be fertilized with mature compost when the shoots emerge in spring.
How tall do hostas grow?
Depending on the species or variety, hosta plants can grow to very different sizes. Some species of hosta grow to just 7.87 inches tall, where as others can reach heights of 31 inches with their inflorescences.
When can you divide hostas?
You should only divide hostas if you want to propagate the plants or the clump becomes too big. The best time to divide hostas is in spring or fall.
What goes well with hostas?
Hosta plants are good companions for shade plants. You can create great flower bed looks alongside shade grasses like Japanese forest grass as well as other ornamental shrubs and ferns.