Hostas have it made in the shade

They sound like names of thoroughbred horses: Paul's Glory, Sum and Substance, Great Expectations, and Blue Mammoth. Rather, they are top-selling hosta plants.

Hosta plants are the No. 1 selling perennial, with day lilies at No. 2, says Steven Still, executive director of the Perennial Plant Association in Hilliard, Ohio. The hosta's main attraction is its leaves, which come in a range of blues, greens, yellows, and whites that make it particularly useful for color in shaded areas. Some have stalks as high as seven feet that bear white or purple flowers.

The plant's appeal is enhanced by its durability as well as its easy upkeep and propagation. The exotic tropical appearance offers variegated textures and boutique patterns, including solids, stripes, ripples, streaks, puckers, and splatters.

"They're just luscious and inviting plants," says Eva Jones, president of the Delaware Valley Hosta Society and owner of the Azalea Patch, a landscape nursery in Joppa, Md. She notes that with such a variety of sizes - from six feet across to six inches - the plants are highly versatile. "There's something that can please everyone."

Hostas, like day lilies, roses, or azaleas, have inspired bursts of collecting in recent years. One collector paid $4,100 at a 1998 American Hosta Society (AHS) convention for My Child Insook (a medium-sized, white-centered, green-margined mutation), says Mark Zilis, who has written about hostas. "The one thing that everybody wants is something new; that's been the question that has fueled this collecting," he says.

Jean and Peter Ruh's garden in Chesterland, Ohio, near Cleveland, contains more than 2,000 different hosta types. Their garden is among the Top 5 of the world's largest hosta collections, says Kevin Walek, a registrar with the AHS. Other collections approach the Ruhs' in size, but are not necessarily supported by Mr. Ruh's careful labeling and record keeping. "I have three drawers and a chest behind me," Ruh says. "All my records are on cards. I'm not a total believer in computers."

The couple's three-acre historic collection has plants dating back to the late 1800s and other rare hostas. They grow and sell a large selection of them through Homestead Division, their hosta nursery and seed bank. The enterprise was founded in 1980 as a retirement business after 37 years of growing and selling annuals and perennials.

Ruh's collecting bug started in 1975 and grew each year, as did his correspondence with hosta collectors worldwide, some as far away as Japan, Germany, and Switzerland. He has registered the most hostas with the AHS, nearly 400 of the 3,515 registered hostas, providing each plant's history, including who cultivated, named, and brought it to market.

Last year, Ruh registered the hosta Jean Ferris Ruh to honor his business partner and wife of almost 63 years. It joined Toots, a hosta that commemorates Jean's childhood nickname.

"I hear about hostas morning, noon, and night," says Jean with a smile. "He has amazing recall. I can't begin to keep track of what he does."

The hosta's origins lie in Japan, China, and the Korean peninsula. Today, experienced trackers can find wild hosta stands in Japan. "They're still discovering them on [the base of] Mt. Fuji," Ruh says. "These varieties have great monetary value not only in Japan but in the United States." Although native hostas grow in Korea, they are hard to find. China's wild hostas are probably all gone.

The plant is named after Nicolaus Host, a physician to the Austrian emperor. Hosta seeds were first sent, in the 1700s, to nurseries and botanical gardens in Western Europe from China. Phillip Franz von Siebold, a Netherlands emissary to Japan, shipped plants back to the Netherlands, Belgium, and other Western European countries in the 1820s and 1860s. The hosta is believed to have arrived in New York courtesy of Thomas Hogg, President Lincoln's emissary to Japan, who sent them to his brother, a nursery owner.

"They started out [in the US] as exclusive to botanical gardens and a few collectors, but eventually they made it to the common gardener," Mr. Zilis says. From the late 1800s to 1920s, hostas were grown and shipped from Western Europe, and gardeners recognized their value as shade plants. After the 1930s, mail-order catalogs increased their availability.

What hostas need to thrive

Hostas are recommended for USDA climate zones 3 to 8, but they can also grow in areas not typically associated with the plant: Alaska in June, and parts of northern Arizona and New Mexico, for example.

Dappled sunlight is preferable, but dense woodland is not recommended because the plant's roots compete with tree and shrub roots for nutrients and moisture.

Rich, organic soil is a must. Clay soil can be modified with Canadian sphagnum peat moss, mushroom compost, and decomposing leaves. Because hostas prosper in acidic conditions, they grow best in soils with a pH range from 5.0 to 7.5.

"The one thing hostas need is water," says hosta expert Peter Ruh of Chesterland, Ohio. "They thrive on water. A dry season can be disastrous."

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