Our retail store in Williston, VT, currently offers about 35 hosta cultivars—more than any other perennial species in the nursery. That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of species and thousands of available cultivars that make hostas a plant collector’s dream. They demand little care and solve the “what grows in the shade” problem, too. It’s little wonder that they’ve hovered around the top of the most-popular-perennial chart for years!
Fantastic foliage is the key to the hosta’s success. Leaves range from teaspoon- to serving-platter-size in a wild array of shapes and textures. In shades from bright emerald green to dusky blue-gray to cream, many cultivars feature borders, centers and splashes of pure white to gold. Although the flowers are usually a secondary consideration, they are no less impressive. White to violet and purple, bell-shaped flowers bloom on tall, slender stalks in early to late summer, depending on the species. Some are even fragrant.
With so many to choose from, picking a hosta or two for your own garden can be daunting. Here’s what I look for to help narrow the choices:
Mature plant size. Miniature hostas grow only 8-10” tall and less than 12-15” wide, making them ideal for small landscapes, containers, foreground and garden edging. At 3’ tall and up to 6’ wide, the largest hostas create dramatic landscape accents. Plant these in large groups for a low-maintenance, ground-covering solution or to cover up unsightly wellheads and other landscape features.
Leaf size, shape and texture. Rounded, heart-shaped, cupped, strappy. Teaspoon to platter size. Smooth, wavy, puckered, corrugated. Glossy, glaucous or matte. The potentially infinite combinations of foliage characteristics keep hosta breeders in business and collectors always clamoring for more. Foliage thickness or substance is a particularly important feature, especially in areas with slug and snail problems. I can tell you from experience that these pests cause much less damage to cultivars with thick leaves!
Leaf color and pattern. Hosta foliage ranges through all the possible shades of green, and includes white and yellow. Emerald green to chartreuse to gray-blue green, crisp white to cream to golden. Red is showing up on the flower stems of some newer cultivars, such as Cherry Berry, and I’m sure it won’t be long before we see red on the foliage, too.
Hostas are fun to use in garden design. I like to pair cultivars with similar colors, but opposite patterns. Guacamole has large gold-centered leaves with blue-green edges, for example, which looks great next to Ivory Coast’s cream-edged, gray-green foliage. Patriot and Dancing in the Rain make a good bright-green and white combo. To tie different areas of a landscape together, I use hosta cultivars with similar colors and patterns, but in different sizes or leaf shapes. White- and gold-leafed cultivars brighten shady spots and nearly glow in the dark!
Although known as a shade-loving plant, hostas prefer some filtered and morning sun. Some cultivars, especially yellow-leaved cultivars and those with patterned foliage, need at least a couple of hours of full sun to look their best. All prefer humus-rich, well-drained, moist soil.
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