Of all the shady characters I’d be happy to have in my garden, the lovely, leafy hostas (more commonly known as plantain lilies) surely are at the top of the list. Originally, hostas come from China, Korea and Japan (where they are known as giboshi). In their natural homes they flourish in dappled shade and rich, moist soil. They were first introduced to Europe about 260 years ago, and became an instant hit thanks to the luxuriant nature of their leaves, and the delicacy and fragrance of their lily-like flowers!
Confusingly, during the mid-1800s, there were two names givens to hostas – and hosta wasn’t one of them. They were known as ‘funkia’ and (this is the confusing bit…) ‘Plant’. So, when garden designers of the day, such as the great Gertrude Jekyll, ordered gardeners to “plant a Plant”, not all of them knew what she meant!
Also, in those days there wasn’t much in the way of choice. It’s different now. Today there are a bewildering number of species and varieties (around 3000 hosta names are registered), so it’s perhaps best to see what plant experts, like Farmer Gracy, can recommend.
Hostas that come highly recommended
↓ Hosta ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ (order here) is a popular and lovely variety with small, round blue-green leaves that grow into a dense cluster. Even better, as the leaves are thick, it seems to be one of the few plantain lilies less prone to the ravages of slugs and snails (see below). In mid-summer these leaves are accompanied by sprays of lilac-coloured bell-shaped flowers. This hosta has received an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
↓ Hosta ‘Devon Green’ (order here) is a sport of Hosta ‘Halcyon’, one of the most popular hostas of all time. It makes a dense, medium-sized hummock of heart-shaped leaves. Each leaf is a warm, dark green with a highly glossy surface. This shows in perfect relief its distinctive and prominent veining – the real attraction of this cultivar. It too is a slug-resistant form, and it, too, has received an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS.
↓ Hosta ‘Guacamole’ (order here) is a quite new plantain lily that grows into a strong mound of large, heart-shaped leaves – each is softly ribbed, with a blue-grey margin and an apple-green to gold centre. The pale lavender flowers are large (like mini foxgloves), long-lasting and highly scented. And it’s another holder of the Award of Garden Merit from the RHS.
↓ Hosta ‘Rainforest Sunrise’ (order here) is a compact reaching just 25 cm / 10" or so in height. It has thick, oval, cupped, prominently veined leaves of chartreuse to yellow, with dark green outer margins. In 2013 it was voted Hosta of the Year. A sport of the popular Hosta ‘Perry’s True Blue’, this delightful cultivar is extremely popular and also received an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS.
↓ Hosta ‘Paul's Glory’ (order here) produces pale lavender flowers, but it’s the leaves that do all the work with this larger hosta. They are heart-shaped: golden in the centre, with broad, blue-green margins. Early in the season there is more of a greenish look to the plant, but the golden colouring intensifies, becoming the dominant colour (particularly if grown where the sun can shine down upon it for a part of the day). And, as the season progresses, the leaves are further transformed: the golden centres gradually whiten, and the leaves take on a slightly puckered appearance.
↓ Hosta ‘Twilight’ (order here) is a fairly new variety with thick, shiny leaves that are dark green in the centre, and with pronounced yellow margins. This yellow colouring turns to cream and white as the season progresses. Mature clumps can be a metre or more across in high season. It is a tetraploid variety – a sport of Hosta fortunei var. aureomarginata. This means that it is more compact, has thicker leaves, and has more pronounced flowers than other, similar (non tetraploid) varieties. It has also demonstrated good resistance to slugs.
↓ Hosta ‘Hands Up’ (order here) is a small to medium-sized cultivar. It is a tetraploid hybrid, very similar to the highly popular cultivar ‘Praying Hands’. However, being tetraploid, it is more compact, has thicker leaves, and has a noticeably wider yellow edge to the leaves, which enhance the uniquely upright folded growth. The centre of the leaves is a rich, dark green. It was bred in The Netherlands by one of Europe’s leading Hosta producers, Marco Fransen, and, of course, it has received an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS.
↓ Hosta ‘Forbidden Fruit’ (order here) is a medium-sized cultivar with thick, highly coloured leaves. The outer edges are blue-green, while the inner sections are of a glowing, egg-yolk yellow and orange. Towards the end of the season, the centre or the leaf is almost white. In mid- to late summer, its flowers attract bees. This is a tetraploid Hosta – meaning that it is more compact, has thicker leaves, and has more pronounced flowers than other, similar (non-tetraploid) varieties. It is another holder of the Award of Garden Merit from the RHS.
The right conditions for plantain lilies
Yes, hostas (or plantain lilies) are great plants for a shady part of the garden. However, if you plant them in deep shade, they flower less than those given a little more light. Deep shade will certainly make blue-leaved hostas bluer than if they are in bright light. But actually, contrary to popular wisdom, not all hostas need shade – some actually enjoy a bit of sunshine. These are generally the yellow and gold-leaved types, which have thickish foliage. So, taking this all into consideration, the ideal place for most hostas is dappled shade, with a decent soil that does not dry out too quickly.
If you’re unsure about the soil, or how much shade your hostas should or shouldn’t be getting, grow them in pots so you can show them off to best advantage. Rather than to pot them in a general or multipurpose compost, I’ve found the best compost to be a John Innes No 2, with some extra grit mixed in. Mulching around the plants – whether they’re in pots or in the ground – with coarse grit helps to retain moisture (and could deter the opportunist slug!). It’s not a bad idea, too, to mix in some water-retaining granules to the potting compost, to help stop pots drying out.
Also, you should feed the plants three or four times during the growing season. If your hostas are in the ground, I would mulch around them just before they start into growth with well-rotted manure or compost. Then, before the leaves get too large, sprinkle some slow-release fertiliser or a handful of fish, blood and bone around the base of each plant. For plantain lilies in pots, I tend to apply a half-strength tomato feed or seaweed feeds three or four times during the growing season. One gardener I know prefers to use chicken pellets around the base of hostas in pots, but there can be a whiff if those pots are near to where you sit!
Hostas, the slug and snail issue
I know, I know. You are thinking to yourself, why should you bother with hostas in the first place – they just get shredded by slugs and snails! Well, there are ways to foil those munching monsters!
- If you grow hostas in pots, deter slug and snail invasion by putting sharp gravel or grit underneath the pot (as well as a mulcj). Also, many people swear by Vaseline or WD40 rubbed around the rim of the pot. Copper tape wound around pots is said to given an electric shock to the slugs as they cross it – so that keeps them away. And I’ve even heard of gardeners sprinkling the hottest chilli powder they can find around the stems of plants – with fabulous results.
- You can, of course, buy wildlife-friendly slug pellets – just remember to clear away the dead bodies so that frogs, birds and hedgehogs don’t eat them.
- These days you can invest in nematodes, a natural control that is applied to the soil. Google them to find a supplier, or visit a garden centre for the mail order form.
- Most slugs and snails feed at night, so this is the ideal time to go out (with a torch) and pick off any invaders you see. You’ll be amazed at how many you find.
And finally, this is not for everyone, but keep chickens or ducks! Small, feathery-footed bantams actually do very little damage to the general garden, and they eat countless numbers of slugs. And, I’m told, ducks are even better!