Hostas (aka Plantain Lilies) are some of the most well-known landscaping perennials around for gardeners in the United States. But it wasn’t always that way.
Ride along with me as I cover everything you need to know about these dynamic landscaping workhorses!
If you’re looking for a care guide, check out my post on Hosta Care.
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What is a Hosta?
Hostas are blooming perennials that belong to the family Asparagaceae.
From that family name, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute, does that mean…” And the answer is yes! They ARE in the same family as Asparagus!
They’re also related to Agave, Hyacinth, and Century plants. It’s a pretty diverse family.
In the gardening trade, they’re appreciated for their low-maintenance, easy-care nature. They’re also a favorite for shady gardens. Because of this, they are sometimes known as “The Queen of the Shade.”
Hostas symbolize friendship and devotion. You may have never considered giving one to someone as a gift, but you might want to give them a second look the next time you’re shopping for a friend that likes to garden. They’re long-lived and low-maintenance, just like any good friendship.
A Brief History
This species is native to the Eastern Hemisphere. We can trace them back thousands of years in the fossil record, albeit in a very different form than how we know them today.
From what we know, Eastern gardeners have been aware of Hostas as a species for at least 800 years. They were particularly prevalent in Japan. However, they showed only limited interest in them as far as their ornamental merits are concerned. This was likely due to the fact that it was a native plant. Indigenous plants are frequently taken for granted by locals and prized by foreigners.
Local people primarily used them for food. Some may find it hard to believe, but Hostas are edible (for humans). You can even eat Hosta flowers.
My braver readers should check out this recipe for eating young shoots. If you try them, let me know how they taste.
Hostas Make Their Way to the West
Dr. Englebert Kaempfer, a German naturalist, physician, and explorer, was the first westerner to detail and catalog this species. This was before Carol Linnaeus developed binomial nomenclature for effectively cataloging plants and animals (Genus name followed by species).
It wasn’t until the late 1700’s that the first species reached Europe. It was Hosta plantaginea, the Fragrant Plantain Lily. It took another 130 years after that for them to make it to the United States.
The grandfather, so-to-speak, of Hostas in the United States was Thomas Hogg. Hogg was the first to start selling both full-grown plants and seeds.
Thanks to his efforts, they became more accessible for widespread cultivation.
How Many Varieties Are There?
There are over 3,000 different varieties of Hosta out there. They come in a myriad of sizes, colors, shapes, and bloom types. Some Hostas spread by seed, others by Rhizome. The most popular colors include the traditional dark green, soft powder blue, and variegated white and green.
There’s a variety for essentially any garden size. Some reach only 6 inches tall, while some varieties reach up to 4 feet tall.
If large-and-in-charge is your goal, I recommend you check out my post on how to make Hostas grow bigger.
Photo by Jessica Johnston
Where Do Hostas Grow Best?
They’ll grow well nearly anywhere across the continental U.S. and the UK. There are varieties that survive down to USDA Zone 3 and up to Zone 9. Just double-check that your variety is cleared for your area before you buy.
In the garden, they grow best in an area with partial sun exposure and loamy soil. Some like less sun, other Hostas like sun a bit more. But all of them prefer rich soil with good drainage and regular moisture.
How Do You Plant Hostas?
Fortunately, Plantain Lilies are pretty easy to plant. They aren’t extremely picky, but I’m going to cover all of the steps to get them started on the right foot in your landscape.
- Find a suitable location where your plant will thrive. Make sure it has an appropriate sun exposure and soil quality.
- Now, dig a hole 2 to 3 times as wide as the pot that your plant is in. Digging a wider hole allows your plant’s roots to spread easily. The hole should be as deep as the pot.
- If you’re going to mix in a soil additive (soil conditioner, bark, compost, etc.), now is the time. You can mix the native soil with the additive in a wheelbarrow, bucket, or even in the hole itself. Mix it around with a hoe or a spade until you seem to have an even mixture.
- Remove your plant from its pot. Use your fingers to tussle the sides and bottom of the roots loose. Alternatively, use a sharp tool or the side of a plant tag to create shallow slices through the outer roots. Your plant’s roots won’t spread as well if you skip this step.
- Place the plant in the center of the hole.
- Fill in the hole with your soil mixture. Stop when the soil is level with your plant’s root ball.
- Gently tamp down the loose soil with your hands. Don’t push down too hard, as this will compact the soil.
- Apply a layer of mulch around the base of your plant. Roughly 2-3 inches of mulch is appropriate.
- Water your new planting deeply to settle everything and get your plant hydrated.
Fertilizing New Plantings:
You can fertilize your Hostas when they’re freshly planted. You can use a standard granular inorganic fertilizer or a dry organic fertilizer. What you should not use is a liquid fertilizer.
Root fibers are damaged when you remove a plant from a pot, plus you intentionally damage roots when you’re loosening them from the root ball. Liquid fertilizer is absorbed rapidly by these damaged ends and it will burn the roots. It probably won’t cause any serious damage to the plant, but it will set your plant’s growth back. Wait a few weeks after planting to apply a liquid fertilizer.
Is It Ok to Plant Hostas Under Trees?
Yes, in fact, this is one of the great features of Plantain Lilies. They handle shade nicely, so planting them underneath trees usually works well. Especially if the tree’s leaves gently filter the sunlight. They’re able to get some sunlight, but it’s not nearly as intense as unfiltered sun exposure.
Trees to Avoid: Don’t plant them underneath trees with dense, fibrous roots. For example, Maple Trees. Trees with these types of roots will choke out your plant eventually.
Do They Come Back Every Year?
Yes! Hostas are perennials, which means that they come back year after year. Each growing season, they’ll produce additional plants in their clumps which will make them larger and denser.
It isn’t guaranteed that they will make it through winter, though. I have an entire post on this subject: How to Prepare Hostas for Winter. I recommend that you check it out for some tips and tricks on how to help your plants survive the cold.
Are Hostas Evergreen?
No, keep in mind that all varieties are deciduous. This means that they’ll die-back to the ground every year after your first freeze. So they aren’t a plant that you can count on for winter color or structure. However, this is a significant reason why they can survive in so many places. Plus, you can always mix other plants into your garden beds that will provide winter-interest during the colder months.
Common Hosta Pests
Although they’re generally easy to care for, there are a few pests that can prove to be somewhat challenging with them.
Deer find Plantain Lilies to be quite snackable, unfortunately. They don’t have many defenses in the way of becoming lunch for some hungry deer.
So if deer are a common problem for you, you’ll probably have to take some precautions to prevent your plants from being eaten by them. There are numerous tactics you can try to deter deer.
Motion-activated sprinklers work well. Also, Hostas like water so they won’t be disturbed by the extra hydration.
Snails and slugs are very common pests for these perennials. This is because they’re commonly grown with ample shade and moisture, which snails and slugs like as well.
There are numerous ways to get rid of these guys.
- Set up a beer trap. Bury a jar deep enough that the lip is flush with the ground. Fill it with a couple of inches of beer. Slugs and snails will fall in and they won’t come out.
- Put a birdbath or bird feeder around the affected area. Birds eat slugs. So the more birds you have around, the fewer slugs you’ll have.
- There are commercial or natural bug sprays that should get the job done.
- You can try spreading crushed eggshells around beneath your plants. Snails and slugs don’t like their sharp and jagged edges.
Rabbits… Rabbits also enjoy munching on Plantain Lilies and they can prove quite frustrating to repel. In particular, you’ll find them munching on new shoots in spring, which is a terrible way to start off the growing season. They may even do extensive enough damage to kill the plant.
Here are some tactics you can try for repelling them.
- Fake owls or snakes. Sometimes these work well for scaring away rabbits. They even make battery-powered owls that rotate their heads and make hooting noises. Seems a little extra and possibly unsightly, but I know of people that have had success with them.
- Mix up some homemade rabbit repellant. Blend up a few chili peppers and onions with a bunch of garlic in a gallon of water. Let it sit overnight. Then, put this mixture in a sprayer and hose down your plants with it. Any hungry rabbits will turn their noses up at this pungent concoction.
- Add some plants with strong scents to your garden. Rabbits often find plants with strong fragrances offputting.
Hostas go well with many other plants, but here are some of my recommendations.
- Heuchera or Heucherella (aka Coral Bells). These guys grow in similar conditions and they come in some really fantastic colors. Therefore, you’re able to create a really nice contrast with them.
- Hydrangeas (primarily Macrophylla). If you have a partial shade garden, there’s no reason you shouldn’t mix in some Bigleaf Hydrangeas. They’re usually a bit larger than most Hostas, so you can create a nice size and texture contrast. Furthermore, their summer blooms are phenomenal. Stay away from Paniculata Hydrangeas, though. They need more sun to grow properly.
- Camellias provide a totally different shape, texture, and color presence in the landscape. They’re also evergreen and they bloom at a different time. Try planting a Camellia japonica variety in your shade-garden. Some of their blooms are absolutely unreal.
- Mahonia are almost the complete opposite of Hostas. Which allows for opportunities to create a dynamic garden. The Soft Caress Mahonia is a plant that I used to work with quite a bit when I was in the nursery biz. They have feathery foliage that excels in shade gardens. Also, they bloom in winter, which is when your Plantain Lilies are asleep.
Popular Hosta Varieties
The Blue Angel Hosta (Hosta x ‘Blue Angel’) is one of the largest (if not the largest) blue cultivars around. It’s also one of the best-known varieties.
- Large, spade-shaped leaves that are silvery-blue to blue-green in color.
- Crisp-white, bell-shaped flowers that contrast nicely with the foliage color.
- Reaches roughly 2.5 feet tall and can stretch up to 6 feet wide!
- Hardy from USDA Zones 3 to 9 and grows best in partial shade.
Photo by Greg Rosenke
The Elegans Hosta (H. sieboldiana ‘Elegans’) is another popular blue variety.
- Well-known for its HUGE, heart-shaped leaves.
- Features bright white flowers with a hint of purple-pink.
- Reaches roughly 2.5 feet tall and up to 4 feet wide at maturity.
- Hardy from USDA Zones 4 to 9 and grows best in partial shade.
The Guacamole Hosta (H. ‘Guacamole’) features a sort of reverse variegation from what you normally expect. The inside is a brilliant shade of green and the outside edge is a dark true green. This has become a pretty popular variety in recent years.
- Blooms are white and bell-shaped, appearing between June and August.
- Reaches about 1.5 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide at maturity. Furthermore, it’s remarkably low-maintenance.
- It’s hardy from USDA Zones 3 to 8 and grows best in partial shade.
The Francee Hosta (H. ‘Francee’) is a popular white-edged Hosta that you’ve probably seen from time to time.
- Features thin, cream-white edges on its true-green leaves. These leaves are elongated with a point, like a spearhead.
- Flowers are light lavender in hue and appear between July and August.
- Reaches about 2 feet tall and wide, so it has a nicely rounded clumping shape.
- Hardy from USDA Zones 3 to 9 and grows best in partial sun.
Hostas: The Wrap Up
So now you know a little more about Hostas. What they are, where they came from, what varieties are out there, and the answers to some FAQs about them.
Be sure to contact me if you have any further questions or if you have another topic you’d like me to cover.
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