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 classic 2013 conversation 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. In 2013, it was 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 2013 conversation, a few of my recent hosta “aha’s” are called out below, but be sure to listen in to the whole podcast for more using the player just below. The “more” includes 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.



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, a waxy coating on the leaves is what causes the light to be reflected in such a way that they look that glaucous blue, 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

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 3, 2013 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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

  1. Rochelle says:

    For deer, I have had success with tablets called “Repelex.” These are giant pills you plant near the hosta in the spring and it flavors the whole plant. They are expensive and putsy, but you only need one annual application. Much better than the stinky sprays. Repelex also makes a spray, but it is not as effective as these tablets. I swear the deer have learned not to bother with my bitter tasting plants. Just don’t put them near the vegetable garden!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Rochelle. Though it sounds like you are having success, I don’t use products that are not approved for organic gardening. (In fact, I don’t even use pesticides that are approved for organic gardening!) In this case, with the idea of changing the chemistry of the plants, I don’t want to inadvertently make any of the plants in my garden unappealing to beneficial insects or pollinators or hummingbirds, etc., and also I don’t like to bury anything in the soil, where so many critical life forms are inhabitants. So I have a giant fence! :)

  2. Gladys says:

    Oh, thank goodness! I am not a fan of big and/or blue either, and thought it was just me! I much prefer small/medium sized plants and love ‘not-blue’ especially variegation, which feels so much cooler in my Southern summer. Maybe the ‘size’ thing has to do with my urban life, but the color thing can’t be put off to that.

  3. Leelee says:

    I strongly agree with Tony. I stopped by a hosta farm in Ohio last summer and was so overwhelmed by the thousands of kinds they had, that none seemed all that interesting in the end and I left empty handed. Stained Glass hosta consistently gets my attention from a hundred feet or more and is a favorite of the thirty plus kinds I have (and others I have ripped out over time). The miniatures are sweet in containers, but in Atlanta most mini and small hostas– especially anything variegated — are slug bait except for Blue Mouse Ears. While I know how to fight the snails and slugs, I find that in a large self-maintained garden I have little patience to bother. Goodbye soon to Rainforest Sunrise, Lakeside Cupcake, Fire and Ice.

  4. Heather says:

    I love June as well – unfortunately, it’s the one the bunnies love best and they will eat it right down to the ground. I have to enjoy it through a chicken wire cloche. I am also partial to Guacamole. Something about that particular shade of yellowy green just speaks to me. I haven’t bought a new variety in years because I haven’t felt anything really compared to those two, but last year I succumbed to a miniature called Appletini, another yellowy green. For big and blue, I still think you can’t beat Sieboldiana. Maybe not so big, but those corrugated leaves are beautiful and just right in my book. Glad to see some validation for the older varieties here.

  5. Linda Aragoncillo says:

    Hi, I just read your article on Hostas, I have a hosta that the leaves are so big and that the plant itself is huge, it looks like
    there are hundreds of plants all in one….is is safe to make smaller plants from the one plant. When would it be safe to separate into smaller plants…….everyone that sees it compliments me on how beautiful and huge it is……would love you advice on what to do!!!!!! I have other hosta’s but are smaller ones……

    Thank you, Linda Aragoncillo

    1. margaret says:

      Hostas are easy to divide, Linda, and it sounds as if yours could benefit from it. I like to do it in earliest spring, before there is much foliage to damage, if I can (just before it awakens). Early fall is also a good, generally cooler and moister time outdoors. I avoid summer dividing typically. The hardest part is digging up a big clump in the first place. I like to wash the big root mass off before dividing to see what’s what, but even being somewhat careful, you will damage some roots and growing points. Most everything will rebound, but not to worry if a few divisions get too chopped up to make it.

  6. Robin says:

    My green and white varigated hostas have lavender flowers and the flower stems get 4 to 5 feet tall. Can you tell me what they are called? thank you

    1. margaret says:

      Sorry not to know, Robin, but there are thousands of cultivars. The most common green and white ones are probably Undulata, which comes in Albomarginata (white edges on green leaves) and medio-picta (green with white in the middle of the leaf). Look up undulata Hosta in a web search and go from there.

  7. Pat L. says:

    Hi – FYI – we are lucky to have a beautiful nursery in Granby, CT that specializes in Hostas – it is O’Brien’s Hosta Nursery, about a hour from your NY home. It is located at his home with beautiful display gardens to stroll and it is NOT just hostas – he has perennials, shrubs and specialty plants too. I discovered it last year and it offers a large selection of healthy plant material – here is his link – I bet you would enjoy this nursery. He is on Facebook too and posts pics to tease us all. Enjoy the day! http://obrienhosta.com/

  8. Joel says:

    What? No mention of the fact that hostas are a shade-loving perennial vegetable that’s fantastically easy to grow? This spring I stuffed myself with sauteed hosta shoots.

    1. Megan says:

      Joel, I asked how to prepare them, and how to tell which varieties are edible. No answer. Though a response to every other post. I know, because my email reminds me constantly.

      1. margaret says:

        Hi, Megan (and Joel). The Japanese eat the emerging tender shoots, like this. Of course that means no, or fewer, leaves in the garden for the season! :)

        1. Megan says:

          Thanks for the link. The deer have grazed mine and my grandmothers hostas weekly for years, they always push up new leaves.

  9. Martha says:

    After seeing Hosta ‘June’ on one of your garden tour days a few years ago, I stumbled upon them at Home Depot of all places. I should have bought more. I haven’t seen ‘June’ anywhere since. Do you know a local nursery that sells them? By local, I mean in your area or the Hudson Valley (I live in Kingston, NY). Thanks.

  10. Nancy says:

    June use to be my favorite but then I discovered On Stage. I’m in love with Cats Eye and other
    small Hosta. I have over 100 verities there fore space becomes and issue. June is interesting because it is so different if it is in the sun or shade. This is in New England so our sun is not
    as hot as it is in Southern states. I wish I lived close enough to visit Plant Delights.

  11. gwen says:

    I had to dig up tons of hostas that had hosta virus. I still have a few left, & I’m wondering if they will get it, too, & have to be destroyed? Does it ever go away? Any controls for it?

  12. grace flight says:

    I had giant green hostas surrounding my Victorian Home. they all (about 40 plants) originated from the same plant. They were magnificent. In one season I lost all of them and don’t know why. They were all older plants ( about 22 years old).Any idea what happened?TX

    1. margaret says:

      I would have to see to do the forensics — is this this winter that you lost them, just now? Here mine are not even up one tiny bit it has been so cold (NY State Zone 5B). If you are somewhere much warmer and it’s time to give up hope, were there any remnants underground, perhaps chewed-up root from voles? Or did the spot have water and ice this winter standing there for any period of time, so they rotted off? Tell me more.

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