Hosta comes out of the shadows in 2024

Hosta comes out of the shadows in 2024

Shedding new light on a suspicious character

Perhaps no plant brightens a shaded area more than a hosta, said David Trinklein, a horticulturist at the University of Missouri. Hardy perennials that thrive in shade are low-maintenance and easy to grow.

“It is no surprise, then, that hostas were selected by the National Parks Bureau as Perennial of the Year for 2024,” Trinklein said. Its leafy leaves come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and variety. Hosta is one of the few plants that brings eye-catching color to the shadier corners of the garden.

Hosta plants growing on the University of Missouri campus. Gardeners estimate that there are more than 4,000 varieties of hosta. (Photo by David Trinklein.)

Horticulturalists estimate there are more than 4,000 hosta varieties, he said. They range from miniatures such as ‘Baby Bunting’ and ‘Tiny Tears’, which are several inches in diameter when mature, to giant miniatures such as ‘Sum and Substance’ and ‘Emperor Wu’, which reach a height and spread of 48 inches.

Hostas typically fall into one of five categories based on height or leaf color, Trinklein said. These are dwarf, striped, ground cover, background, and hosta specimens of any height with colorful or unique leaves.

Leaf color varies between solid colors of green, blue, and yellow, or varies in any combination of these colors. Most variegated varieties bear dark leaves with light or colored edges. A few cultivars are flowering, changing from light to dark shades during the growing season. Others are luminous and change from green to yellow. Very few change from yellow to white, a trait known as contrast.

Hostas can also be classified according to their leaf shape (strap, lancet, ovate, heart, and round) and leaf surface (flat, rough, concave, wavy, curled, pitted, or wrinkled).

Like daylilies, hostas bear a compound inflorescence known as a scape. The individual flowers on the spike are lavender or white, depending on the cultivar. Some of the flowers are delightfully fragrant, adding more appeal to this attractive plant, Trinklein said.

Although most people consider hostas to be a shade plant, relatively few varieties thrive in deep, heavy shade. Most prefer several hours of morning sun followed by afternoon shade, or intermittent patches of dappled sunlight. Aggressive hosta roots compete well with the roots of most tree species.

In general, blue-leaved varieties need more shade exposure. Varieties with green and yellow leaves can tolerate more sun. Most sun-tolerant varieties will show some leaf edge burn if exposed to afternoon sun and Midwestern summer heat.

Some hosta varieties take years to develop into a mature mass. Therefore, good soil preparation is a sound investment. Hostas prefer rich, loamy soil that is rich in organic matter and slightly acidic. Good drainage is also important. Mix about 4 inches of organic matter deep into the soil to prepare a potting medium. Compost, compost, leaf mold, or peat are good sources of organic matter. Plant in a hole 12 inches deep, about one and a half times the diameter of the mature variety.

Divide dormant hostas into more plants, or purchase established plants in nursery containers. To plant, remove the hosta plant from its container and release any tangled roots. Place the plant in the hole so that the soil covers the roots at the same level as they were in the nursery container. Remember that the soil settles when you water it. If you are planting dormant sections, soak the roots in water for about 30 minutes before planting. Always water well after planting.

Gardening experts disagree about the need to fertilize hostas. Some insist that most garden soils contain enough nutrients, making additional fertilizers unnecessary. Others assert that hostas need more fertilizer. This kit calls for applying a complete granular fertilizer such as 12-12-12 or 5-10-5 early in the spring, followed by two additional applications about six weeks apart. Apply according to label directions and consider the stature and strength of the variety. Do not fertilize hostas after mid-July. This can stimulate late-season growth and prevent the plant from hardening off in the winter, Trinklein said.

Hostas need about an inch and a half of water per week during the summer. Burnt leaf tips and drooping leaves are a clear sign of lack of water. If additional watering is needed, water early in the morning to allow the leaves to dry quickly.

Increase hosta numbers by dividing the clump early in the spring when shoots begin to emerge from the soil. Most varieties need about five years of undisturbed growth to establish mass.

Slugs and snails usually chew small, round holes to feed on plant leaves. They leave a dried trail of mud as they move from one place to another. Control slugs and snails using poison baits containing myorol, metaldehyde or iron phosphate. Place pots filled with beer in the garden. The pests will crawl into the pan and drown. Deer also love hostas. Repellents, electric fences, guard dogs and motion detectors control deer more or less effectively.

Unlike foliar nematodes, hostas are relatively disease-free. Hosta X (HVX) is a relatively new virus that has gotten a lot of publicity recently, Trinklein said. Varieties with light-colored leaves may develop blue or green markings that usually follow the vein of the leaf into the surrounding tissue. This results in a mottled appearance. The leaves may also appear clumped or wrinkled.

Symptoms are difficult to detect on varieties with dark-colored leaves and may appear as light-colored spots rather than colored stripes. HVX spreads by mechanical transmission from an infected plant to a healthy plant, especially during reproduction. There is no cure, and gardeners should get rid of infected plants, Trinklein said.

It’s difficult to choose which of the 4,000 hosta varieties to grow. Look for a variety that won an award from the American Hosta Association or a Hosta of the Year award from American Hosta Growers, Trinklein said. “Hostas were once considered green fillers for shady areas, but they are now the stars of shady landscapes,” he said.

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Learn more about hostas on the American Hosta Society website at www.hosta.org.

Cover photo: Hostas, the stars of the shady landscape, have been approved by the National Parks Bureau as Perennial of the Year for 2024. Photo by David Trinklein.

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