AT Meadowbrook Hosta Farm, Jay Gilbert breeds gold and blue "babies" in the basement. This hosta enthusiast has been growing the popular shade plant for seven years at his home here. "You really have to love it," Mr. Gilbert says - and apparently he does: He already has hundreds of varieties and is still dreaming up more. Gilbert spent a rainy day this spring scouring the dictionary for names for his new seedlings.
At his home in North Tewksbury, Mass., recently, Gilbert proudly showed off his babies, most with only a couple of tender leaves. The lower level of Gilbert's home has been converted to a small greenhouse and tissue-culture lab, where he controls light, temperature, and moisture for hundreds of hostas in various stages of development. Outdoors, his established hostas were just beginning to poke through the soggy earth.
Native to Japan, hostas are mounded, green, leafy plants that have become increasingly popular in the United States, especially over the last decade. Hostas provide an attractive option for shade gardening - most hostas grow best out of direct sunlight. The plants are relatively pest-free, requiring little or no spraying. In fact, the best care for these gems is almost no care at all, especially in mild climates with rich organic soil. Established hostas are full and lush, and do well as edging and fille rs. In Japanese gardens, hostas are often feature plants, an idea catching on in the US.
The American Hosta Society has more than 2,000 members - up from 800 in 1987. "Hostas have become popular because of changes in society - lifestyles have changed," says Robert Olson, president of the society. He suggests that many people do not have time to tend complicated plants.
Unlike roses, he says, hostas do not require constant attention, and are virtually indestructible. In recent years, he notes, "Color and variety have increased immensely."
As they are developed, hostas are being offered in more varied combinations of color, size, and shape. Beyond the standard plants most retailers carry, however, hostas are difficult to find.
Hosta enthusiasts find that the best way to obtain new plants is either by mail order or through networking with other gardeners, rather than scouring greenhouses.
"Greenhouses only carry a green, a blue, and a yellow [hosta]. It's becoming a mail-order business," says Gilbert, who now sells hostas through a catalog. This year, Gilbert's catalog will list more than 200 varieties at an average price of $25 to $30. He also sells a tissue-culture kit for customers who want to breed new varieties. Within the next few years, he hopes to have 40 to 50 new kinds of hosta available.
Development of a new hosta is a lengthy process: six months to a year for seeds to sprout, and another five years of waiting to ensure that the plant stays "true." An immature plant may not represent how the plant will look when fully grown. And for Gilbert, it's difficult to throw away hostas that haven't turned out, even though he already has 400 to 500 hostas in his garden.
Variety is one of the main attractions for hosta growers. Plants range from tiny mounds only a few inches high, such as "Venusta," to sprawling giants like "Sum and Substance," which may grow to 6 feet in width. Colors range from lime green - almost fluorescent - to gorgeous deep blue-greens. Combined with an an unusual leaf - cupped, pointed, or heart-shaped - the effect can be stunning.
The search for new hostas can be exhausting. There are more than 1,000 registered varieties, Olson says. Perhaps another 500 to 1,000 varieties are unregistered.
But hosta lovers enjoy the challenge of finding new plants. Local gardener William Burto says, "Once you get started, you don't stop until you get a yardful." Ten years ago, Mr. Burto began growing hostas in his small city garden in Cambridge, Mass., and later expanded to his neighbor's yard. Two hundred varieties later, Burto says he enjoys the variety of leaves. In addition, "They are extremely easy to grow and thrive in New England."
Although hostas are primarily known for their foliage, they do produce white, purple, lavender, and pinkish flowers - some quite fragrant. Currently, variegated varieties, as well as new red-stemmed plants, are favorites. But the bestseller is probably "Frances Williams," an old standby that has crinkled green leaves with yellow margins and a white flower.
A BASIC starter set of hostas can be inexpensive, with young plants priced at about $4 to $10 each. The more uncommon, mature, or new varieties can make the hosta habit costly, however: At a recent American Hosta Society convention Gilbert attended, a single hosta plant was auctioned for $975.
Gilbert is eager to share his enjoyment of hosta gardening: "The fun is in planting seeds and getting something new ... there aren't any secrets." He even sent this reporter home with two plants, a "Golden Tiara" and a tiny blue-green still in the experimental phase. "If it turns out to be something, you can name it!" Gilbert said.
* For further information, write:
American Hosta Society
7802 NE 63nd Street
Vancouver, WA 98662
New England Hosta Society
46 Bartlett Street
Chelmsford, MA 01824
Meadowbrook Hosta Farm
81 Meredith Road
North Tewksbury, MA 01876