EARTH TALK: Growing hosta, a favorite foliage plant for shade gardens

EARTH TALK: Growing hosta, a favorite foliage plant for shade gardens

Few shade-loving plants offer as much visual variety as hosta, a herbaceous perennial grown more for its foliage than its blooms. Hosta is thought to have originated in Japan, and arrived in Paris in the late 1700s. In 1862, Thomas Hogg Jr., the U.S. marshal for Japan under President Lincoln, was said to have bought hosta directly from Japanese street merchants to sell in America. Hogg, the son of a British horticulturist, had come to Manhattan as a child and learned the nursery and florist trade from his father.

Hogg collected many horticultural species in Japan and delivered them to his family nursery in America. Besides hosta (Hosta sp.), they included Japanese hemlock (Tsuga diversifolia), Japanese false cypress (Chamaecypris pisifera), Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamelia), Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), and the Veitch fir (Abies veitchii).

Unfortunately, Hogg also introduced several invasive species to North America: kudzu (Pueraria sp.), oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), and porcelain berry (Ampelopsis glandulosa). He had no idea which of the species would become invasive in their new habitats. It could just as easily have been the hosta that decided to overtake North America.

In some ways, though, it can be said that hosta has conquered our gardens. There are more than 45 species in the Hosta genus with over 3,000 registered varieties. Whether dark or light, solid or variegated, small or large, there is a type for every garden and gardener, many with fanciful names: Blue Angel, Big Daddy, Golden Meadows, Munchkin Fire, Lakeside Dragonfly, and Night Before Christmas.

For 2018, the Hosta of the Year as selected by the American Hosta Growers Association is World Cup, a large herbaceous perennial that will grow to 23 inches high and 43 inches wide. It has beautiful bright gold foliage with a corrugated-looking surface on its deeply cupped leaves. As with most hosta, the flowers bloom in late June or early July from tall racemes, rising high above the foliage. World Cup’s lavender-colored flowers contrast nicely with its glowing foliage.

Most varieties have broad, lanceolate or ovate leaves, meaning that they are wider near the middle and lance-shaped or wider at the base of an oval-shaped leaf. Sizes vary from the inch long by ¾ inch wide leaf of the miniatures (I love the appropriately named Baby Booties), to the 18 inch long by 12 inch wide leaves of the giants such as Sum and Substance. The variety Curly Fries only grows to 6 inches high but it provides a lot of impact with its very long, slim, and wavy chartreuse leaves. Hosta plantings are called clumps and the clumps of the miniatures are perfect for tucking in between other plants where just a touch of interest is needed.

One of the best things about hosta is that you can have an expansive border or grouping of hosta without having two alike. When planting the new clumps be sure to space them according to their size at maturity to avoid ending up with an overcrowded bed. As they are shade-loving, too much sun will dry them out, so choose an area that is in shade most of the day with well-drained but moist soil.

Adding organic matter to the soil at planting is helpful. As the plants mature, they may show signs of overcrowding, or clumps may have no growth in the center. This means it is time to divide the clump. Spring or fall are the best times to divide hosta, as the heat of summer will create too much stress for a newly divided plant. Use a shovel to remove the hosta from the ground and either pull apart the clump or use the shovel to divide it. Place the new smaller clumps into prepared holes and keep them well-watered until they are established.

Hosta have few pests, although slugs may be attracted to the same shady, moist environment that the hosta enjoy. Egg shells, coffee grounds, or diatomaceous earth can be spread beneath hosta to discourage slugs. Deer and rabbits will feed on hosta foliage and voles may eat the roots and crowns. If you don’t have a problem with wildlife or don’t mind sharing a few plants with them, then hosta will bring quite a bit of interest into your landscape.

Susan A. Pelton is a seasonal public service specialist with the UConn Home & Garen Education Center. Horticultural questions? Contact the center at 877 486-6271; visit the website,; or contact your local Cooperative Extension center.




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