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HOSTAS - Naveling, Fragrance & Descaping

Hostas are one of the most purchased and utilized ornamental plants and it is easy to see why. There is great variation, they are easy to grow and low maintenance, can be spectacular, are readily available and reasonably priced, and people presume one or several, with their OH MY leaves, will distinguish their yard/garden. Well I am here to tell you that too many hostas is a common mistake -- six months or more of an empty garden -- the allocated space is often inadequate, and there is much more to this genus than most people realize. I will address three aspects of these leafy beauties, insight from The Mad Botanist, attending to them in the order in which they occur during each growing season.

NAVELING - This is an situation (an often overlooked maintenance issue/activity) I commonly see, especially if the hostas (1) are located under or near oaks, (2) are cultivars that possess a seersuckered surface, and (3) for cultivars with a pronounced narrowing (a damming) at the junction of the petiole and leaf blade. I have coined a name for the maintenance activity - NAVELING. Oak trees produce a profusion of catkins (amentiferous flowers) in late spring. These spent flowers are shed and caught by the large surface area of the hosta leaves and accumulate at the blade/petiole junction, plugging the opening, like lent in one's navel. The unattended to unkempt look bothers me, and when saturated the plugs can occasionally help weigh down the leaves a little, so I am compelled to remove the mass. I have tried doing so with direct nosel spray but to much intensity can perforate or shred the leaf blade. Accordingly, I find it better to simply do a manual collection and add the navel accumulation to my compost or simply, and more commonly, toss it to the ground as an addition to the underlying mulch. The plugged plants pictured above are "Blue Angel' and 'Sum and Substance.'

FRAGRANCE - Most people, and many gardeners, are surprised to hear that hostas can be fragrant. That is, one special hosta species is fragrant. And those flowers are very fragant, pervasively so, in late afternoon and early evening. That wonderful plant (a Chinese native) is Hosta plantaginea, what are commonly referred to as plantain lilies or August lilies. So-called due to the fact they flower a few weeks later than the standard (visual only) hostas featured in most gardens and garden centers. Not only is anthesis for these honeysuckle sweet beauties later in the growing season but the pure white flowers of H. plantaginea are much larger, sometimes six inches or more long! August lilies coming into flower is one of my favorite times of year. Futhermore, these marvels of nature can take more sun, in fact they require more sun to get maximum blooming. There have been nearly 300 different cultivars of H. plantaginea created and described although many of them are not genetically stable, commercially available or good garden plants. Moreover, expect a blank stare at most garden centers if you inquire there about fragrant hostas since the vast majority of people focus on the potential foliar display and the labels often omit (or overstate) the fragrance and/or the species. The H. plantaginea cultivars most likely to be encountered include: 'Cathedral Windows', 'Fragrant Bouquet', 'Fried Bananas', 'Fried Green Tomatoes', 'Guacamole', 'Honeybells'. 'Royal Standard' and 'Stained Glass' -- all mutations of the straight species or crosses with it. I recommend all of them. I have about five dozen different hosta clumps on my two-acre plus spread. My "luego of hostas" (see my collective nouns link) includes about 40 different kinds, 15 of them the fragrant ones. My August lilies are scattered but they are also especially impressive in mass planting. You may occasionally see an advertisement touting a fragrant big blue-leaved hosta, don't believe it. If you want blue leaves get one of the many beautiful non-fragrant H. sieboldiana cultivars like the 'Blue Angel' shown above, but it/they will be absent fragrance. Further, there are some appealing August lily releases other than the common ones, especially polyploid double-flowered selections (e.g., 'Aphrodite', 'Double Up', 'Ming Treasure', 'Sweet Innocence', 'So Sweet' and ''Venus'). But, while special and intriguing, so far they have not performed as well for me as the aforementioned cultivars. I am discovering that they must have sun to flower and the event is often aborted well into flower development. There is also a particularly large-flowered offering called as either var. grandiflora or cultivar 'Grandiflora' (pictured above). Its leaves are plain but the floral display is awesome!!! and may be a deer's favorite garden food. -- Tony Avent produced an interesting history of H. plantaginea. That article (Hostas - The Fragrant Kind) and another entitled Hosta, Hosta, Hosta, also by Avent, are posted on his Plant Delights Nursery website. Both are interesting and informative. You should give them a read.

DESCAPING - Another maintenance chore that gets overlooked or done incorrectly is dealing with spent scapes (flowering stalks). I also named this activity - DESCAPING. I have argued for some time that this behavioral attribute ought to be included with the info provided with plants, along with length of flowering and prospensity to spread (including means). And, while this article focuses on hostas, descaping is as much or more an issue with daylilies and irises. I find the sight of spent scapes an eyesore and am compelled to remove them once they have senescenced (browned and dry) but this experience has taught me that not all cultivars easily release. If they do not, leave them. Attend to them later in the season. Excessive force, trying to detach the scapes, could damage your plant. Nor is it recommended that the still green scapes be cut. Permit them to go through the normal used up process first, that is do not cut green. BTW, these spent scapes make an excellent firestarter -- daylilies and irises moreso than hostas. Having said that, there is one hosta for which I leave the scapes well into fall. 'Krossa Regal' (and its offspring 'Regal Supreme') produces ghostly (almost white) scapes which I find visually appealing.

Related, want your hostas to perform (i.e., get enormous) water frequently and apply fertilizer. But know this, I DO NOT use or recommend synthetic fertilizer -- several reasons, detailed in past posts. Genuine compost and worm castings are king (see my Oct 2020 rant). I also augment with a dose of broadbased mycorrhizae (see Fungi Perfecti, Olympia Washington). Moreever, I suggest you should give serious consideration to adding a fragrant hosta or two to your mix. You will thank me come August. Finally, my buddy Chris Wilhoite (Soules Garden) has the best selection of hostas in the region and he has a remarkably deep understanding of the plants as well -- curiosity, extensive hands-on experience, a super eye and a good mind can do that. He is a student of the plants, and it shows. The wise gardener knows the importance (and rarity) of this knowledge. Essentially, a prime difference separating a true gardener from the plants as decoration crowd. The difference is immense.

If you are surprised to find this posting absent much of the vitriol / direct speak you are accustomed to, fear not. I am certain my topic next month (raised beds) will resurrect the "madness." Moreover, I am proud to do so without having to resort to gimmicks, like profuse profanity, to attract. Popularity and adulation are NOT my purpose. I am trying to instruct (i.e., provide wise guidance) but can only hope that I am having some success.


1 Comment

I always found my hostas grew bigger if I picked the flowers. That growth energy went into making bigger plants and bigger leaves.

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