Shunned Shade-Loving Perennial Gets Its Day in the Sun

The humble hosta, considered boring by many, is enjoying new favor; in Japan, they enjoy the flavor

When people come calling at RCI Gardens here on the outskirts of Boston, most initially come for the day lilies for which the nursery is renowned. Few are interested in the hostas. Some even say they hate them.

But owner Bob Seawright has a way of changing their minds."Just take a look at them," he says pointing to the shady tree-lined hosta garden near the entrance to the nursery. "Humor me. Go in there for three minutes, that's all I ask." Invariably Mr. Seawright will go looking for the visitors half an hour later and find them absorbed in all there is to see. They, too, have become hooked on hostas, just as he was some 20 years ago.

Back then while his wife was attending a conference in Raleigh, NC, he went along and stopped in at a hosta convention just to fill time. "When it was over I knew I had to be a part of it," he says. In fact, there's been a slow but steady resurgence of interest in hostas throughout the US in the past decade and for some very good reasons according to Seawright.

Leading them all is the fact that hostas perform superbly in the shade that has come to dominate suburbia as trees grow and gardens mature.

While hostas are at their best in dappled sunlight, "I've seen them grow in places so shady nothing else will grow, not even weeds," Seawright says. "They come out looking good, no matter what," he adds, "and they've turned a lot of unsightly corners into gardens of beauty."

They also hold their own with tree roots very effectively. "Just chop a hole in the ground, drop them in and give them a little water," he advises. Seawright has even placed hostas directly on top of matted tree roots, surrounded them with soil to form a raised bed, and within a few weeks their roots had gone down so deep into the soil that he couldn't pull them out "no matter how hard I tried."

New varieties are constantly coming onto the market to expand the already wide range of color, form, and texture available to gardeners. Moreover they come in sizes ranging from just two-inches tall to others that grow four-feet high with a spread that can exceed six feet.

Unlike most perennials hostas do not need dividing every few years. In fact they can stay in place happily for decades, slowly expanding from the base. I found several large hosta plants growing in my own home when I moved there in 1967, and they may well have been there for a decade before that. They are still thriving today withvery little attention.

Hostas, for the most part, are native to Japan where 80 percent of the country is mountainous tree country, ideally suited to the plants. In Japan, where some hosta species are eaten, the ongoing search for new varieties has become a national pastime, but it is the US that leads the way in hybridizing.

Time was when hostas had the reputation as bland, uninteresting plants. This was largely because single varieties were often planted in boring, regimented rows, often in full sun which left them a little tired looking by midsummer. Now their full potential as shade-enhancers is recognized. In addition, the number of hosta varieties available to gardeners now exceeds 1,200 and is increasing by the year.

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