Native to Japan, China, and Korea, hostas were imported first to Europe and later arrived in America in the mid-1800s. There are hundreds of species and thousands of cultivars from which to choose. Hostas are a reliable and hardy perennial with countless combinations of leaf color, shape and texture and are made for the shade.
Hostas are sometimes referred to as the plantain lily. They have fleshy roots and short spreading rhizomes. In the spring, broad leaves emerge from a central crown and develop into a mounding form. Colors range from bright green to gold and the texture can be smooth, veined or puckered. Leaf size ranges from petite to gigantic and is described as heart-shaped, lance-like and cupped.
Flowers are sometimes forgotten because hostas are so valued for their leaves. Flower stalks hold bell-like blossoms of white or lavender to blue. Some varieties are exceptionally fragrant and attractive to hummingbirds and bees.
While hostas are referred to as shade-loving plants, too dark a location will lead to slower growth rates and compromised performance. Hostas can survive in deep shade — defined as four hours or less of sun — but do best in sites where filtered or dappled shade is available throughout the day.
Recognizing sun damage during the growing season is important. Brown, scorched leaf surfaces or leaf tips on a hosta are a symptom of sunscald. This can be alleviated by moving the plant to a shadier location or providing more water.
Hostas prefer rich, moist soil that is high in organic matter and is well-drained. Having a soil test done prior to planting can be valuable in understanding soil condition and providing recommendations of what amendments can be added to obtain the optimum nutrient levels. Adding organic materials, such as composted aged manure or leaves, will help improve soil.
Gardeners should choose cultivars based on available light and space. Purchase plants from a reputable nursery, checking to make sure they are free of obvious symptoms of virus, such as yellow or spotted foliage and irregular and disfigured leaves.
Although hostas can be planted throughout the growing season, springtime planting is best. Hostas planted later when temperatures are warmer will need more water to promote a healthy root system.
There is a common denominator with hostas; they need water! This is not a xeric plant that can count on rain for survival. Hosta leaves have a large surface area and transpire or lose water easily. Even moisture of an inch per week is considered best for hostas. Deeper watering done with less frequency is preferable to frequent shallow applications. Some gardeners plant hostas beneath shallow-rooted trees, such as maples or spruce; these hostas will require watering for establishment and frequently thereafter due to competition for moisture from the tree.
Organic mulches, such as shredded bark, shredded leaves, or pine needles, will help to conserve and retain the moisture needed for hostas to succeed. Apply mulch after the soil warms in late spring to early summer to maintain a 2-3 inch layer, taking care to keep it away from the plant’s central crown. In addition the mulch will help to suppress weed growth, keep soil temperature even, and eventually decompose releasing nutrients into the soil.
Pruning is unnecessary during the growing season other than removing yellowed or hail- damaged leaves or spent flowers for a tidier appearance. Raking up and composting or disposing of dead leaves as the plant enters dormancy helps to reduce disease and pests.
If hail damage has occurred, fortunately most hostas will recover. Remove the shredded leaves, water if necessary, and wait for new growth. Later in the season, it may be necessary to live with damaged leaves until new growth appears the following season.
Winter protection is not necessary. A standard layer of organic mulch already present during the growing season will help insulate the soil and prevent cycles of freezing and thawing. Providing some extra mulch for winter protection can be helpful.
When looking for a perennial to plant in that shady spot in the garden, hostas — with proper care — won’t disappoint.
(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)