6 lessons about hosta, with tony avent

Blue Ivory, June, First Frost, Touch of Class (clockwise from top left, all from Plant Delights)HOSTAS ARE SO FAMILIAR, you probably think as I did that you know plenty about them. Yet in a conversation the other afternoon with Tony Avent, founder of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina and a longtime hosta breeder, it was one hosta “aha” after another.  Ever wonder, for instance, why some blue hostas turn dull by high summer, or certain yellow and variegated varieties fade worse than others? Or did you know that ‘Halcyon’ (a blue hosta) has produced all the “sports” or mutations above, and more? In a story and a podcast, get to know our most beloved shade-garden standby more intimately than ever before.

I suppose I already knew that there are more than 6,000 named hosta varieties, though perhaps merely 500 are truly garden-worthy, says Tony, whose standard is what he calls “The 10-Foot Test.” Meaning:

“If you can’t tell it from 10 feet away without a label, throw it out,” he says unflinchingly–classic Tony. “You don’t need to be introducing more plants that look like every other plant.”

He speaks from experience in composting more than your average number of plants, many hostas among them. This year is the 25th anniversary of Plant Delights Nursery—and Tony’s 29th year in the hosta-breeding business (he’s been at it since 1984).

The 1980s were the hosta’s “real heyday,” he recalls, and a few plants from that era have withstood the test of time—varieties such as blue-leaved ‘Halcyon,’ for instance, or ‘Sun Power.’  But mostly, not so much.

“You look back at the hostas you developed that long ago, and those of course those would go in the trash today,” says Tony. “We’ve really come so far.”

Over roughly the same period, the advent of tissue culture—micro-propagation techniques performed in the lab—“has brought new varieties out of the collector’s market into the masses,” he says. With tissue culture, “you can go from one plant to maybe 10,000 in a year.” It has sliced the prices of new hosta introductions from a few hundred dollars or more, to just $25 or $35.

Great new for gardeners, but not necessarily for breeders’ economics—and Tony’s once-10,000-square-foot hosta production area is now closer to 4,000. The other factor affecting a somewhat-smaller focus on the genus: the growing deer population everywhere. Tony calls those insidiously hosta-ivorous four-legged opponents “wood goats,” with appropriate disdain. (A showcase of other perennials that do show deer resistance is on his website.)

From our conversation, a few of my recent hosta “aha’s” are called out below, but be sure to listen in to the podcast for more, including why Tony has named his otherwise-elegant hosta introductions things like ‘Elvis Lives’ and ‘Out House Delight’ or ‘Bubba’ and ‘Red Neck Heaven’—among other fun Avent-style facts.

prefer the podcast?

HOSTAS were the topic of the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program with guest Bob Hyland. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The April 29, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year this month, and is syndicated via PRX.

my 6 hosta ‘aha’s,’ thanks to tony avent

1. That big—and most of all big and blue—is what sells more than any other physical attributes. (I’m crazy about yellow myself; as ever, I’m sadly out of step with the market.)

“Our focus in breeding has always been on having things that look unique—but now that doesn’t always mean they’re as commercial,” says Tony. What’s commercial: “Big blue hostas.”

“That’s where the money is,” says Tony (who in classic Avent style is therefore particularly excited about small hostas). Since the 1980s big blue has been the thing, he says, “and will be for the foreseeable future. The biggest-selling hosta today is ‘Empress Wu,’ which is about 4 feet tall and 7 feet across—it’s enormous,” explains Tony, adding that it’s not even a great hosta beyond its impressive size. “Big is a very big deal. So since big is a big deal, we’re breeding miniatures.”

2. That small leaf size and overall stature in hostas comes mostly from just one species.

Hosta venusta, which appears in nature only on a volcanic island off the southern coast of Korea, is the source of this trait; most of the miniatures (such as the sport called ‘Kinbotan’) have venusta in their background.

3. That there’s an explanation behind why that the leaves of some varieties fade more quickly in summer than others from vivid to dull, or otherwise as the season progresses—something I always lament, but never understood the mechanism of. 

Hosta Touch of Class from Plant DelightsWith blue hostas, the blue color comes from a wax coating on the leaves, Tony explains—“and we all know what happens to wax after many days in the 90s; the wax melts off. And if you have a lot of rains in the summer, the rains can wash the wax off.

“The warmer climate you move into, the blues just don’t hold up. So it’s the amount of wax—and that’s why I like things like ‘Touch of Class’ (above photo) because the wax holds up much longer; it has a double layer of wax.”

So which blues besides that one perform best against the elements?

“In the blues, the standard for me would be ‘Pewterware’ or ‘Blue Jay’—they tend to hold their color longer than almost anything else,” he says.

With white or variegated or yellow foliage, the mechanism behind their aging through the season is very different, Tony explains—it’s not about wax.

“All those hostas are either lutescent or viridescent,” he says, referring to the inherent genetic characteristics that govern leaf fading.

“Lutescent ones come out maybe green and go to yellow, or come out yellow and they go to white,” he explains, “and viridescent ones come out bright and fade to green. So you have to know which one you’re getting—since almost all gold, white or variegated hostas are one or the other, and don’t stay the same color as they age.”

3. That Hosta plantaginea (below)–from whose genetics breeders get fragrance—is even more distinctive that I realized, beyond that sweet smell emanating from its large white flowers.

Hosta plantaginea (photo by Nova, from Wikimedia Commons)Any hosta variety that has fragrance has Hosta plantaginea in its background, Tony explains (all the fragrant varieties he offers are here). And plantaginea also has good vigor and more sun-tolerance–more than other hostas.

Another distinction: plantaginea generally will flower later in the season–even August, when those big, white perfumed blooms are especially welcome. But there’s a downside:

“As a breeding plant it’s really tough, because all hostas expect that one bloom at 7 in the morning,” says Tony. “That one opens at 5 PM. It’s the white-sheep of the hosta family–you sort of have to trick it to get it to have sex with the others.”

But trick it he does, and at Plant Delights, he is creating a whole new series of fragrant hostas as a result.

5. That when Southern gardeners go in search of “heat-tolerant hostas,” it’s actually hostas with “low chill requirements,” a.k.a., not much need for a wintertime, they’re after.

“It’s the amount of cold they get in winter that matters,” says Tony. “As we move into the South, we look at hostas that have a very low winter-chill requirement.”

How to tell? You can go out in the garden and look for the ones that pop up earliest, as soon as any hint of spring warmth comes on. Those are the ones that need less chill.

Hosta plantaginea has no dormancy requirement, for instance, Tony says—the only hosta that has none–and can therefore grow all year round. Hosta venusta has a very low chill requirement. Another from Korea that has low chill requirement: Hosta nakaiana.

Breeders have used those species to create hostas for hot climates.

6. That some of the hostas I like best of all weren’t the result of a breeder’s deliberate hybridizing (that is, exchanging pollen between two plants with desirable traits), but were naturally occurring mutations, or sports (genetic variation within a species or variety).

Take the example some of the excellent offspring in the top photo of ‘Halcyon,’ the breakthrough blue-leaved hosta from the late 1980s, says Tony. From its sports have come such not-all-blue varieties such as ‘First Frost’ or ‘Blue Ivory’ or ‘June’ [Margaret’s favorite] and ‘Touch of Class,’ which Tony says is better still. “All of those are sports from the original.” Who knows what beauty will show up next?

more hosta fare from tony avent

(Hosta photos from Plant Delights, except H. plantaginea by Nova, via Wikimedia Commons.)

18 comments
June 4, 2013

comments

  1. says

    I love hostas. I love them all the more now that I can’t have them. The combination of Florida and no shade for my property eliminates them from my gardening equation. I hope everyone who can have them really enjoys them!

  2. doreen says

    I have over 30 varieties -old and new, blues, whites, yellows ,variegated and yes I have Empress Wu and Komodo Dragon because they are huge; but my favorite is the little blue Mouse ears….

  3. Judy says

    I have hosta sieboldiana var. elegans because it tends to be more slug resistant in the landscape. The other “garden variety” hosta that was chewed to bits, I now have that one in pots on my porch. The slugs can’t get at them there, they are in the shade and ready to be included in the peony and lady’s mantle bouquets that I’m enjoying right now.

  4. Linda L Smith says

    Yellow, blue, gold & chartreuse I love them all. Over 20 years ago Hostas are what started my plant interest. I also have many varieties old an new. My favorites are the very large to hugh sizes..whats not to like about Big Daddy or Sum and Substance. Hostas require very little and give back so much year after year and the leaf bouquets are spectacular (saw that many years ago in a MSL magazine). I agree with Tony about his 10ft test and the yellow hostas. will have to see if I can get an out house..too funny…great interview!

  5. says

    I’ve mostly avoided hosta for years because of the deer population in our area, but I’ve tucked a few in occasionally with the hope they wouldn’t discover them. One I adore is a green and white variegated specimen that came from my mothers garden, and her mothers before. It looks crisp and fresh on the hottest days and lights up the corner of the garden it’s placed in. Lovely plant!

    Love your site Margaret! It’s a wealth of information!

    extravagantgardens.com

    • says

      Thanks for the kind words, Caroline. Nice to hear about your happy hand-me-downs. :)

      Hi, Merritta. Me too! I have mostly relegated those to “groundcover” status in the outer beds not near the house, under big shrubs. As for baking sun, morning maybe but not all day/all afternoon, I don’t think. Ouch!

  6. Rae says

    Each hosta has particular charm, either by those that are painted with splashes of another color or the very large which continue to amaze me each year. But now, I have added miniature hostas because of their use in my fairy garden.

  7. merritta says

    Before I discovered the joys of small, unusual hostas, I planted one sieboldiana elegans without considering how huge it gets. I’ve planted bits of hit and now have about six huge silver-gray hostas. We had to cut down the tree they were happily living next to, and now they’re in bright sunlight much of the day. I am not looking forward to prying them out of the clay soil and moving them to shade. Do you think they will be all right in the sun, or is that hosta abuse?

  8. Sharon says

    The previous owners of my house planted hostas, without realizing that they are nothing more than a deer salad bar. I have had some success using a product called “Deer Out” on them to prevent munchage, as it lasts longer than most of the other repellants I’ve found. Still, if I do not spray every 6 weeks or so, I’ll find that the deer have reduced my hostas to what looks like celery hearts from the grocery store. Any time I pull up spearmint or other herbs that have gone wild, I scatter the leaves around the hostas, that seems to help too.

  9. Lin says

    Tony is a special man. He is coming to our master gardeners state convention tomorrow. Look forward to hearing all he has to say.

  10. Carol says

    Hi, Margaret: My circa 1928 all-over the yard plantings are loaded with hostas; unfortunately, for the last 10 years, since the arrival of deer, it’s a losing battle. The once luxuriant plants are reduced to deer breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Today, I joined the Friends of the Frelinghuysen Arboretum, so as to see you on Sunday. Looking forward to your talk. See you then!

  11. says

    Wow, good stuff here, Margaret and commenters!
    I just wanted to share a little chuckle from years ago, regarding hostas. I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time, which is not far from Terra Nova nurseries. The local newspaper, the Oregonian, interviewed Dan Heims. The topic was his current enthusiasm, heucheras. This is an excerpt from their exchange, roughly as I remember it. “But,” said the interviewer as politely as possible, “how much variation can you really come up with? I mean, really? They’re just…ah…foliage plants.” Heims was not amused and huffed, “Oh?! Tell that to the hosta people!” ;)

    • says

      Very funny story, Teri, and I can just imagine Dan Heims saying that! I love leaves (something I guess isn’t so easy in a hail-ridden year such as this one has been) so to me flowers are not even a close second. Of course the bees disagree with me. :)

  12. Susan says

    Thanks Margaret. I love my hostas and am looking forward to reading the article on Hostas for hot climates as Atlanta summers can be brutal. I have one blue hosta in my yard and it drives me nuts. I can’t figure out what it would look best planted next to. Sticks out like a sore thumb in the hosta bed it’s in which are mostly yellow and white varigations. Any suggestions on what combinations work for blue hostas?

    • says

      Hi, Susan. I prefer them with other plants and not among other hostas — so not used as Tony Avent says in a “hosta museum,” which he doesn’t like, either. So for instance with Japanese painted fern or other ferns, or bleeding heart, or other shade plants such as the grass called Hakonechloa, or with heucheras, or Astilboides and Rodgersia and you name it. Depends what other shade plants work for you!

  13. Melinda says

    I have a deer problem, too. I have found that the combination of deterrants work best. I tried this last year and my hostas we’re not touched br deer. I first sprayed Plantskydd on them. Then I used these little poles that had a little shock on the top, plus went along the edge of the woods with moth balls. Worked like a charm. Will do again this year.

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