Hostas are one of the most popular plants for growing in the home garden. Their wide leaves fill spaces without the sunlight necessary to support other plants.
They have shallow root systems that thrive in varied soil conditions, and when hostas bloom, the flowers can smell like honeysuckle.
Hostas are sometimes called “plantain lilies” because their wide leaves resemble large, plantain leaves. Like plantain, hostas are hardy, easy to grow plants that thrive in unattended corners of the garden.
Get to Know Hostas
My mom grows hostas (Hosta spp.) all over her shady backyard. They surround the brick patio and brush up against the wood fence. In the late summer, when her hostas bloom, she hosts afternoon parties in the lily-scented yard.
One of the common names for hosta is “Assumption lily” for the species H. plantaginea. The name comes from its typical flowering time, which is around the Catholic feast of the Assumption.
For medieval gardeners, the Assumption lily was one of the many flowers blessed on the Assumption and hung over the doorway to keep away witches and evil spirits.
There are dozens of species and over 2,500 hosta cultivars on the market today. There are hostas to match any shade garden and even a few hostas that can handle partial to full sunlight.
Hostas are one of the easiest plants to find at local garden supply stores. They’re so easy to find, transplant, and maintain that hostas have become a staple in low-maintenance gardens.
Hostas are the perfect addition to cottage gardens, vacation homes, professional buildings, and shady nooks. They can thrive in full shade, clay soil, and cold climates. In fact, hostas need a six-week period each year below 40°F to go into dormancy. This dormant period allows the plant to reset its growth cycle.
Plant hostas in USDA Growing Zones 3-9.
While hostas are grown primarily for their lush leaves, hosta flowers can be stunning. Most are not large. Some are decidedly understated. But many hosta flowers have an intoxicating fragrance. Their honeysuckle or jasmine-like scent perfumes the air.
The flowers appear at the top of a long flower stalk and they are attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
Best Hosta Cultivars and Hybrids
With a variety of leaf styles to choose from, hostas can present a bed of diversity in your shade garden. There is truly a hosta for every garden. Choose your plant based on the colors, scent, sun exposure, and size that works best for your garden.
Best Varieties for Flowers
Anywhere between June and September (depending on the hybrid or cultivar), hostas burst into bloom. Hosta flowers aren’t always large or showy, but they can be. Many of them are small and scentless, however.
If hosta flowers are a priority for you, pick varieties that produce beautiful, scented, or interesting flowers.
If you want to enjoy the sweet scent, look for H. plantaginea cultivars, in particular. These all have white blossoms with a nice scent. Some of these include ‘Ambrosia,’ ‘Aphrodite,’ ‘August Lily,’ ‘Cathedral Windows,’ Fragrant Bouquet,’ ‘Guacamole,’ ‘Honeybells,’ and ‘Venus.’
Hybrids such as ‘Brother Stefan’ and ‘Color Festival’ are marvelous, as well. ‘Golden Tiara’ produces masses of dark violet flowers that will return for a second show if you deadhead it after blooming.
Best Varieties for Leaves
When selecting a cultivar for your garden, leaf type is one of the biggest differences between varieties.
There are large-leaved varieties like the ‘Empress Wu,’ which produces leaves that can reach two feet in length. The leaves are wide, dark, and beautifully ribbed.
Hostas like ‘Curly Fries’ grow long, narrow leaves, while ‘Whirlwind’ grows wide, white, and green leaves. ‘Jet Black’ produces blue leaves that darken to an almost black green later in the season.
On the other hand, there are small-leaved varieties such as ‘Blue Mouse Ears.’ This miniature hosta produces leaves just two inches long and wide. They’re thick and slug resistant as well as beautiful.
‘White Feather’s’ leaves look like a collection of white tailfeathers tucked into the earth and ‘Color Festival’ sports tri-color leaves.
Plant hostas in early spring – as soon as the soil can be worked in the season. You can also plant them in the late fall – right before the ground freezes for the winter. Space them well, about a foot apart, and mulch them lightly if you’ve planted them right before winter.
Hostas don’t technically have bulbs, even though you’ll see them advertised as such. They have rhizomes or fibrous roots.
Hostas don’t grow well from seed for several reasons. First hostas hybridize easily. Often a hybrid produces seeds, but the seeds don’t grow “true.” They’ve been hybridized and will produce entirely characteristics from the parent. Other times, the seeds are sterile.
You can grow H. ventricosa plants from seed if you’re interested.
Hostas are surprisingly easy to propagate. All you have to do is divide up the root clumps and replant. Hostas grow clumping roots that are easy to divide. Divide your own plants or ask a hosta-growing friend to share some of their roots with you.
Hosta growers are usually eager to spread around their favorite plants.
You can often find hosta roots alongside bulbs at plant stores or you can find them in containers. They may be sold as live plants or bare roots.
Pick a shady or partially shady spot for your hosta plants. Many hosta cultivars can handle partial sun, but some can’t deal with much sun at all. Make sure to know how much sun your particular cultivar can tolerate.
A good rule of thumb is that yellow-leaved types can tolerate more sun, while blue-leaved or variegated types need more shade.
While hostas can tolerate a wide variety of soil types, they prefer rich, well-drained soil with consistent moisture.
Good drainage is one of the most important requirements for hostas. They can handle slow draining soil or truly well-draining soil. I have even seen hostas grow well in packed, clay soil. They’re very adaptable to a variety of environments.
Just don’t plant them in mucky, stagnant soil.
If you want to give your hostas the best start in life, begin with the soil. Add plenty of well-rotted manure or compost to make a rich loam. Then, soak your hosta roots for about an hour to rehydrate them.
After soaking, dig a wide hole, about 4-5 inches deep in your prepared soil. Plant the hosta root side down in the center of the hole and cover it with soil. Hold the roots upright while filling in the hole around them so that the plant stays straight.
The crown of the plant – where the roots meet the stem – should be at ground level. Then, water your new plant. Adding water will lower the soil level, so top it all off with a bit of organic compost. Finally, add a layer of mulch to help retain water.
If you planted your hostas in the spring, they may emerge or start producing new growth a couple of weeks or a month after planting. Fall-planted hostas should emerge with or shortly after nearby established hostas.
During dormancy, you don’t have to worry about watering, unless there’s a drought. But if you’ve planted in the spring, keep an eye on your young plants. Keep the soil well-watered, but not soaking. Watering once or twice a week should be perfect.
Caring for Your Plants
Despite having a reputation for loving all kinds of shade, plantain lilies don’t like deep shade. Keep an eye on surrounding trees and shrubs and be sure to trim them back if they become overgrown.
Similarly, even those that do well in partial sun will need some protection during the heat of the afternoon. If you have a particularly extended hot snap, you might even consider providing some shade cloth coverage to protect your plants.
Hostas like regular water, but they don’t want to have their roots sitting in standing water. Err on the side of watering too little rather than too much. Assume that your plants need about an inch of water per week and go from there.
If you notice the leaves starting to droop or the tips turning yellow, that probably means you need to add more water.
Hostas don’t need concentrated fertilizer, but they do benefit from an occasional side dressing of well-rotted compost. Try to do this once or twice a year.
Some growers plant hostas solely for the leaves. To avoid flowering, they snip the flower stalk off at the base as soon as it appears. But you might be surprised by the beautiful display if you let it grow, and it doesn’t hurt the plant at all.
If you do allow your hostas to flower, you should cut the flower stalk off at the base after the flower has faded.
Cutting the flower stalk – before or after flowering – encourages the plant to put more energy into growing lush, healthy leaves.
You should also cut back any leaves that look damaged or discolored. In the fall, cut down the leaves after they’ve turned yellow and mushy. Not only does this look better, but it helps prevent disease.
Plan on dividing your plants once they start to become a bit crowded.
Pests and Diseases to Watch Out For
Hostas are generally tough, which accounts for some of their popularity. They aren’t immune to issues, however. Here are some common issues:
Snails and Slugs
Slugs and snails are the biggest pests for hosta growers. Hostas grow best in moist, shady soil, and slugs and snails thrive in the same conditions. I send my ducks out among the hostas to hunt for slugs and snails.
If you don’t have ducks, check out our guide for some helpful tips on controlling these slimy jerks.
Deer, voles, and rabbits can cause serious damage to your hostas. Young plants are especially vulnerable to hungry wildlife. Try putting cages or fencing around newly planted hostas to keep hungry deer and rabbits away.
Or spray predator-scent in the flower garden to deter them.
Hosta Virus X
Hostas are resistant to many of the common, garden diseases. But no popular plant is without its own issues. Hosta plants can suffer from Hosta Virus X. This disease can cause angular mottling of the leaves.
Rarely, the mottled leaves are just a mutation growing out of your hosta. Other times, they’re caused by the virus. The only way to tell for sure, without losing your plants, is by sending an affected leaf to the agricultural extension for testing.
If your plant does have hosta virus x, your only option is to destroy the plant.
Hostas can also fall prey to Phyllosticta leaf spot, a fungal disease that spreads quickly in hot, humid weather. Phyllosticta leaf spot starts by creating brown spots on the leaves. The spots spread and eventually form large lesions.
If this fungus is left alone to spread on the leaves, they’ll crack and fall apart. Eventually, Phyllosticta leaf spot can kill the entire plant. In hot, humid weather, reduce watering. Remove any infected leaves and burn them to kill the fungus.
You can also use copper-based fungicides to keep Phyllosticta leaf spot at bay. Spray your plants every 10 days until they flower to combat this fungus. But be sure to discontinue fungicide after flowering to protect your pollinators.
How to Use Hostas
Most people plant hostas to fill up their shady areas, and these plants are obviously perfect for that. If that’s your goal, try planting large groupings of a single or multiple cultivars or hybrids for a strong visual impact.
Plantain lilies are useful for filling in at the base of trees, for the northern side of a house or outbuilding, or as a border for a partially shady garden.
But these plants are more useful than you might realize. They’re actually edible. In Japan, growers heap rice hulls around the emerging stalks in the spring to blanch them. Then, they eat them as you would asparagus. They call the prepared stalks urui.
The shoots are incredibly tasty, but you can also eat the young leaves, stalks, and flowers.