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Heavy shade is home for a colorful range of hostas in your garden

By Elizabeth PullarSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 1981



Too many homeowners overlook the potential of plants that will thrive in deep shade and yet provide both flowers and ornamental foliage. Areas under trees where little sunlight appears in summer are left bare or to undesirable weeds. Fortunately, there are attractive perennials to solve the problem. One of these is the family of hostas, which possess many more virtues than the fact that they grow best in heavy shade.

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Hosta is a garden plant that should be cultivated more commonly. Its beauty is revealed in its pleasant foliage, which is a feature of the plant. It grows in neat clumps that will fill in to form an attractive border or, if left as one planting, will offer a decidedly lovely accent.

Hostas demand no special soil or heavy fertilizer dressings, nor do they need spraying.

Since the nature of the foliage is to branch out from the center of the plant , it creates a shade of its own that tends to retard the growth of pesky weeds. Hostas are hardy and, once established in a shady area, will continue to add charm indefinitely to hard-to-plant locations.

In the fall, the plants die back to the roots, thus minimizing any necessary cutback of the stems.

There are several species of hosta that vary in flower and foliage appearance to afford a pleasing assortment of shade-enduring materials. Leaves of hostas may be broad, narrow, bluish, yellow-cast, variegated, or bordered with narrow white lines.

Flowers, too, are just as diverse as is the foliage of separate varieties. There are pure white, lavender, bluish, and purple blossoms, some of which are delightfully fragrant. All are borne on erect stalks that, when used as cut flowers for the house, will open as the upper buds mature.

Another name for hosta is funkia, but the common name is plantain lily. In addition to this possibly confusing nomenclature, individual varieties sometimes are named differently so that one catalog will offer the same plant under a variant name. If possible, a visit to a local nursery is advisable to see the plants as they grow and to make a selection accordingly.

In all there are more than 10 varieties that are listed commonly. Each has its own size, color, and leaf form, but all have the common attribute of a desirable shade-loving specimen.

Hosta undulata (formerly H. variegata) has wavy leaves which accounts for the new name, but it also has variegated leaves, which inspired the old name. It is a pretty little plant, the foliage of which tends to be more white than green in deeper shade.

It makes a very special edging plant or a distinctive accent of light if planted as a clump in a heavily shaded space.

Many years ago grandmothers used to add a leaf or two of this hosta to round out a bouquet of old-fashioned flowers. H. undulata is one of the earliest to blossom for its lilac-blue flowers appear on spikes in July.

The late-blooming H. plantaginea grandiflora produces magnificent pure-white waxen flowers in late August and early September. The blossoms are delightfully fragrant with a scent that effuses through the air to make one stop and take notice while passing the flowers.

Foliage of this variety consists of handsome green leaves, large and oval in shape. They provide a pretty foil for the white flowers and buds grouped at the top of tall stems. Those who favor spring bulbs will find that these may be underplanted successfully at the base of the hosta to provide color in the space before the green foliage develops.

H. Fortunei marginata is showy in deep shade, for its large leaves are edged with a broad band of white. The plants will merge to create a beautiful border. In August or September many flower stems appear to supply a wealth of lavender blossoms useful for cutting as well as garden display. Lavender hosta flowers are particularly charming in a bouquet with pink phlox.

Another hosta variety with white-bordered foliage is H. crispula. Each individual leaf appears to be serrated due to the alignment of the white border.

Quite different from the broad oval-shaped leaves of many of the hostas is H. lancifolia with narrow leaves which fill in tightly to form a rich clump of dark green. Its flowers are lavender-blue and appear rather late in summer.

Leaves of a bluish-green are those of H. Sieboldiana elegans - and on some plants they are tremendous. The blossoms, in contrast, are whitish with a lavender tint that is a characteristic of the hosta family.

A new plant of this broad-leaved variety is called Frances Williams. It is distinctive with blue-green leaves with yellow edges. Its hosta-type flowers are bluish but it is most spectacular for its very showy foliage.

Another new hosta is H. Fortunei aurea, an unusual variety with foliage which can be described as having ''a phosphorescent glow.'' The chartreuse or yellow leaves tend to be narrow and give out a characteristic glow toward evening. The leaves have more yellow color in spring, turning a rich green in the summer months.

Hostas planted initially in a well-fertilized soil require no further richening as the years pass. They do like a soil that is moist, however, a condition that more than likely prevails in the deep shade that hostas enjoy.

A dry summer may result in a wilting of the foliage, in some instances.

The variegated H. undulata is more susceptible to drought than others, but its leaves are quick to perk up with a thorough watering or a natural rain.

All in all, there are very few perennials which are as well-adapted to shade as hostas. The north side of a house or garage, around tree bases, along shady walks, on the dark side of a wall, or the shadow of tall shrubs are suitable locations in which to start a planting of one or more of the hosta varieties.