No wonder hostas continue to be one of the most popular perennials—they work well as border plants, specimens, groundcovers and container plants, and they're hardy to Zone 2. In fact, despite myriad new introductions of these tough, shade-tolerant perennials, it's still not uncommon to see eager growers at auction bid hundreds of dollars per plant for promising new specimens.
But forget the plain-Jane, thin-leafed, green types of old. Lately, some interesting breeding developments have led to plants with vibrant springtime colours that stay true all season, and specimens with blue, green, yellow and white foliage combinations. As well, there are now varieties with flat, curled, cupped, wavy, puckered, embossed, ruffled, wrinkled and pleated leaves—some furrowed with sunken veins or edged with distinct, crimped undulations (think pie crust) along the margins. Other new cultivars tolerate more sun or have thick leaves tough enough to fend off slugs and snails. Some plants have white or purple, funnel or bell-shaped blooms with exceptional fragrance (thanks to a Hosta plantaginea parent).
More than half of all new hostas come from sports or mutations of existing cultivars because hostas are genetically unstable and predisposed to sending out leaves that are different from the rest of the plant. The use of tissue culture (micropropagation) to produce huge quantities of hostas from tiny bits of dormant bud tissue has increased both the speed with which hosta cultivars get to the garden centre and the availability of these new introductions. In fact, the time from discovery to garden centre can now be as short as three years, compared with an average length of six years to bring a new hosta to market.
Currently, there are some 6,000 hosta cultivars available. But with so many new ones constantly coming on the market, how do you choose those truly worth growing? I asked two prominent Ontario hosta growers—Jack Kent, owner of The Potting Shed, a retail nursery specializing in hostas and daylilies in Cayuga, and Margot Dargatz of Hosta Choice Gardens in Appin—for their picks, then weighed in with my own.
Photos, from top: 'Great Lakes Gold' and 'Queen of the Seas,' courtesy of Margot Dargatz of Hosta Choice Gardens