Photo by Melody

Hostas: It's not Always About the Leaves

By Larry Rettig (LarryRMay 18, 2012

In his much heralded reference book, "The Hostapedia"*, Mark Zilis lists 7,400 hostas, most differing in leaf shape, size, color, variegation pattern, texture, or some combination of those leaf attributes.

Gardening picture(Editor's Note:This article was originally published on August 17, 2009.  Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)



Given such a staggering number of different leaves and the phenomenal--dare I say fanatical--interest in them, it's hard to believe that hostas were originally grown for their flowers.  One of the first hostas to reach Europe was the old standby, Hosta plantaginea, with its plain green leaves.  It was especially valued for its fragrant white blossoms.

*Zilis, Mark R. The Hostapedia, Q & Z Nursery, Inc., Rochelle, IL, 2009.



      Hosta plantaginea in author's garden
Hostas originally came from China, Japan , and Korea, where they're native.  The first Westerner ever to see a hosta was Englebert Kaempfer (1651-1715), a doctor and botanist with the Dutch East India Company.  He sketched them, wrote descriptions of them, and even named them.  To one he gave the impossibly long moniker, 'Joksan, vulgo gibbooshi Gladiolus Plantagenis folio,' which translates approximately as "the common hosta with the plantain-like leaves."  He named another 'Gibbooshi altera,' meaning simply "the other hosta."  A second doctor and botanist, Carl Thunberg (1743-1828), who worked at the Dutch East India Company's trading post in Japan, renamed Kaempfer's two hostas in the then-new Linnaean style, giving them both a genus and a species name, for example Aletris japonica.  Known today as Hosta lancifolia, it's reputed to be the first hosta on American soil.

In 1822, the Austrian botanist Leopold Trattinick (1761-1848) proposed the generic name "Hosta" to honor Nicholas Thomas Host (1761-1834) of Austria.  Host was also a botanist and the author of "Flora Austriaca." Like Kaempfer and Thunberg, he was a trained physician, rising to the post of Physician to the Emperor Frances II.  Other names for Hosta followed, including "Funkia" and "Plantain Lily," but "Hosta" eventually became the universally accepted name for this popular and long-lived perennial.


Hostas bloom in summer with spikes of lavender to white, lily-like flowers.  Some gardeners regularly cut these spikes as soon as they appear, so that they don't distract from the showy leaves and the mounded habit of the plant.  I grant them this preference, with the caveat that it isn't always about the leaves.  I prefer to allow all of my hostas to flower.  Not only do the flowers add color and interest to shady locations, letting them go to seed and allowing them to self-sow, if they wish, has produced some interesting and garden worthy specimens.

Some hosta flowers can be quite showy and deserve more attention from gardeners than they seem to be getting.  Listed below are hostas with particularly showy, double blossoms.

             NAME    HORTICULTURAL
 Aphrodite  DG Plant
  DG Sources
 Athena  DG Plant Files  Source 1, 2 (Click
 Brazen Hussy  DG Plant Files  None found
 Fujibotan  DG Plant Files  DG Sources
 Montana* DG Plant Files  DG Sources
 Royal Super  DG Plant Files  Source 1, 2
 Venus  DG Plant Files  DG Sources
    *Only occasionally double

The following table lists hostas with particularly beautiful single flowers:

             NAME    HORTICULTURAL
 Candle Wax   DG Plant Files  Source 1, 2
 Lakeside Hoola
  DG Plant Files  DG Source, 2, 3
 Lemon Lime   DG Plant Files  DG Sources
 Plantaginea  DG Plant Files  DG Sources
 Ventricosa  DG Plant Files  DG Sources

Fragrance is another pleasing floral aspect of hostas that may be overlooked in the general focus that gardeners put on the leaves.  Fragrant-flowered hostas number over 100.  Click here for an extensive listing. 


Colorful hosta leaf stems impart a more subtle beauty.  Not always apparent at first glance, the red speckling or solid color on the leaf stems, which sometimes trails off onto the base of the leaf, are a delight to discover.  There are relatively few hostas in cultivation that have this characteristic.  Here are four:

             NAME    HORTICULTURAL
 Fire Island  DG Plant Files  DG Sources
 Katsuragawa Beni   DG Plant Files  DG Source, 2, 3
 Little Red Rooster  DG Plant Files  Source 1, 2
 Red October  DG Plant Files  DG Sources


Add some pizazz to your hosta garden by incorporating any one of these special hostas.  If you're a relative newcomer to hostas, think beyond the leaves and discover a special beauty you never knew existed.  It's not too late to do it yet this year.  Hostas transplant easily most any time during the growing season.  Garden centers may even have one or more of these beauties at reduced prices at the tail end of the season.  If not, you can order them from the linked sources in the tables above.  Happy growing!


Author's note:  I've been watching with interest--and, I admit, with some excitement--the recent development of outstanding colors, variegations, and sizes of Heuchera leaves.  Like the hosta, Heucheras were originally prized for their flowers, having rather ordinary green leaves.  Will history repeat itself?  Will heuchera become the next hosta?  Stay tuned.

Thanks to the following DG members for the use of their photos:

ViolaAnn for 'Venus,' Bert for 'Candle Wax,' Joy for 'Lakeside Hoola Hoop,' largosmom for 'Lemon Lime,' Mctavish for 'Fire Island,' Justaysam for 'Katsuragawa Beni,' jody for 'Little Red Rooster,' KevinMc for 'Red October'

Wikimedia for 'Ventricosa'

For a list of DG articles mentioning hostas, click here.

          Hosta 'Fujibotan' in author's garden



                      Candle Wax

               Lakeside Hoola Hoop

                       Lemon Lime


                       Fire Island

                 Katsuragawa Beni

                  Little Red Rooster

                      Red October

Questions? Comments?  Please scroll down to the form below.
I enjoy hearing from my readers!


© Larry Rettig 2009


  About Larry Rettig  
Larry RettigAn enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itís still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Although our garden is private, it's listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s. For more info: Photos that appear in my articles without credit are my own.

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