Supreme Foliage - Hostas that Sing
by SCMG Dan Milhollin
While rambling through a mediocre nursery several years ago and before I recognized the importance of botanical plant names, a one-gallon blue-leafed Hosta (whose cultivar name I forgot but later dubbed “Diana“), grabbed my attention; with only a few eight-inch elongated but very blue leaves, she stared at me and off we trekked to the cashier … we’ve been together ever since, except in winter when she sleeps underground. Faithful and true blue despite the suitors who stop by her spring foliage for late night feasts: snails and slugs. I keep her contained in ever-increasing sized pots, now 36” square. With more space in larger pots, the more abundantly and larger grow her thick, textured leaves. Sometimes called a plantain lily, Hosta plants were formerly members of the lily family (liliaceae) but have been moved into asparagaceae.
This blue-hued perennial sprouts summer lavender blossoms that emerge on alternate sides of long stems (five or six per plant) arising atop the foliage. The blossoms remain fresh for a month to six weeks. Very pleased with Diana’s showmanship on the patio, I sought a green/white-striped leaf Hosta (which I call “Mary“) whose leaf texture is softer, thinner and more fragile. Contrasting to the plain blue-leafed Diana, Mary displays two-inch long lavender flowers resembling weeping bells on multiple stems while the third plant, a solid-color lime green, ridged leaf (“Flo“ to me) has pure white flowers of the same shape
and size. The blossoms of these older variety Hostas have no fragrance but grouped together, they dance in the bright shady stage singing “Stop! (In the name of love") and look at me. The single-colored leaf plants -- usually with thicker leaves -- produce a soft whitish powder coating, which overhead water will diminish and direct sun will burn. This nearly invisible powder is protection as well as adding another dimension of color and texture to the large leaves. It does reemerge if damaged however.
Whether planted in containers or the ground, Hostas needs consistently moist, humus-rich soil and bright shade for the best color and performance. In ground, the planting hole should be several times wider than deep as these plants spread very slowly. My trio receives very meager doses of bone meal only in early spring. Potted, these plants will, after several years, need thinning or to be moved into larger pots; thinning is simple but the plants are fragile and it is best accomplished after they reemergence from dormancy in early spring.
Hosta plants in general are less companion plants than they are specimens; given adequate space and a few years’ growth many varieties reach four to five feet height (including blooms) with equal width. In a woodland setting one or a group of Hostas will create an orchestra of leaf color and texture. One Sonoma County garden displays a specimen of a large, densely textured blue-leaf Hosta of three to four feet height with seven or more feet spread. No one can ignore this symphony; this is horticultural showbiz demanding an encore, a long gaze and applause.
The Hosta habit is a rewarding one with more choices available now than ever. The fussy gardener can shop almost as if buying a car: select the leaf color: solid colors of blue, green, yellow; striped colors of green with white edges, white with green edges, yellow leaves fading to white tips … endless variations; the texture: smooth, rippled, striated; the size: a few inches tall to several feet. As specimens or as companion plants (the smaller ones), Hostas sing without much attention: simply give them consistent moisture and keep an eager eye for early spring snails.
Underplanting for Hostas might include Impatiens, Hakonechloa, Lamium or any brightly colored groundcover that enjoys light shade and rich, moist soil. Dianella tasmancia, with its long, strappy deep green leaves and elegant blue berries makes a complementary companion as do ferns, Hydrangeas, and Astilbe. Gardeners in Sonoma County have the luxury of year-round indoor fresh table arrangements; from late spring to August snipped Hosta leaves enhance most all blossoms in an indoor vase, begging closer examination to appreciate its color, texture, size and sound … Yes, “Come see about me.”
Gardens without shade can now display Hostas hybridized especially for sunny locations. Some of these also produce fragrant flowers. While all this variety is desirable it is also confusing -- and annoying if you can’t find the plant you want. Nonetheless, if you like foliage and colorful music in your Sonoma County garden, your world will be less empty with Hosta hybrids such as ‘Blueberry Muffin’, ‘Dancin’ Queen’, ‘Chartreuse Wiggles’ and others. If your shade garden is asking, ‘Where did our love go?’, Try a few Hostas. You can’t hurry love but when you hear them sing, you’ll know it’s an itchin’ in the heart and you can‘t scratch it … just buy more Hostas!
In Love and Memoriam
In early March, 2019, we said farewell to our friend and fellow Master Gardener, Dan Milhollin, author of this article. Dan made many large and small contributions to the Sonoma County Master Gardener organization from serving as a Board member to offering mentoring and friendship to any number of Master Gardeners. His fondness for flowering annuals and perennials (especially for his backyard rose garden) is evident from the articles that he contributed to our website. We will miss him.
If you enjoyed this article you will also enjoy his articles on Pansies, Honeysuckle, and Artemesia.