Hostas – great perennials that get better with age

Once upon a time, green hostas, blue-leafed or variegated ones were all you could get. But that’s all changed. Thanks mostly to North American enthusiasts and plant breeders, you can find hundreds of different cultivars

They range from the colorfully named chartreuse ‘Abba Dabba Do’ to the large, metallic gold ‘Zounds’. Leaf colors extend from green, gold and blue to variegated, and sizes from miniature to mammoth.

The most popular shade perennials


The gorgeous Hosta ‘Sagae’

The popularity of hostas, perennials native to Japan, Korea and China, is easy to understand.

Members of the lily family, they are hardy, easy- to-grow and to care for. The plants aren’t troubled by many pests, but gardeners do need to be vigilant about slugs on hostas.

These shade perennials thrive in low light, and best of all, they get better with age.

Each season, the clumps get larger and margins on variegated leaves become wider, puckering or seer-suckering in leaves becomes more prominent, and the coloring becomes more intense, especially in blue or gold-toned cultivars.

How much sun do these shade perennials need?


Hosta ‘Regal Splendor’thrives in light shade

Gardeners turn to hostas when they are looking for good shade perennials, but most cultivars actually do better if they get a little sun.

Early morning sun and filtered shade in the afternoon seem to be the ideal.

The gold and green types and many variegated varieties do need some sun to develop good leaf color.

However, too much sun or intense sun at noon and not enough moisture can bleach the color or even scorch the leaves in mid-summer. The blue-leafed varieties grow best in shadier parts of the garden where less light and cooler temperatures keep them at their bluest.

Hosta varieties, sizes and flowering

New cultivars: For good plants, you can’t go wrong with a “Hosta of the Year,” such as ‘Sagae’ or ‘Regal Splendor’ (both shown on this page), as picked by the American Hosta Growers Association.

Many new introductions are pricey. Fortunately, as they become more widely available, the price dips, but classics, such as H. sieboldiana ‘Elegans’, ‘Frances Williams’, ‘Royal Standard’, ‘August Moon’, ‘Wide Brim’, and so on, are affordable and easy to find.

In general, good-sized hostas are pricier than other perennials, but they’re worth it, and you can easily divide one large pot to get more plants.

Flowers: Hostas flower in shades from white to mauve, but mostly they’re grown for their attractive leaves.

The ones I like best for flowers are Hosta plantaginea and its offspring, including the double-flowered white ‘Aphrodite’ and ‘Royal Standard’. Their trumpet-like flowers appear in late summer and have a heady gardenia-like fragrance that makes them lovely for cutting.

Sizes: Hosta varieties range from tiny – under four inches tall – such as ‘Thumb Nail’ and ‘Pixie Power’ to giant, such as the gold ‘Sum and Substance’ and mammoth blue-leafed ‘Krossa Regal’, both of which can attain a width of four to five feet.

Smaller varieties (up to 12 inches tall) make good edgers along paths or the front of a bed, medium-sized ones make excellent ground-covers, and large hostas are terrific in the background or as dramatic accent plants.

When planting, don’t place individual clumps too close together, and be patient: it takes three years for many hosta cultivars to grow to a showy size.

Attractive companions for your hostas

hosta companions

‘Golden Tiara’ hosta with variegated golden hakone grass and purple shamrock

A garden full of hostas can be monotonous, so group them with other shade-tolerant perennials.

Good choices are tiarella (foamflower), ferns, astilbe, ligularia, Siberian iris, heuchera, Solomon’s seal or pulmonaria.

A yellow, gold and burgundy grouping (shown here) that I love is the vigorous small ‘Golden Tiara’ with variegated golden hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureloa’) and purple shamrock (Oxalis regnelli), often sold as Oxalis triangularis.

I used this combo to great effect in a narrow flower bed at the side entry to our house. Oxalis is not hardy, so I grow it in pots, and store the rhizomes in my basement cold room for the winter, and repot them into fresh container mix in March.

Grow them in containers – it’s easy

hosta container

‘Frances Williams’ with its own shade

Try them at the front steps, on the patio or set into a garden bed to fill a gap, anywhere you have good filtered light or part shade.

One summer I planted more than a dozen hostas in earthenware containers on my deck because I’d run out of space in my small city garden.

I potted the plants in humus-rich growing mix that contained composted bark (sold at nurseries as tree and shrub potting soil). During the growing season, I gave the containerized hostas plenty of water and periodic fertilizing.

In the winter, I stored them in an unheated garden shed after transplanting into large plastic nursery pots (to save their earthenware pots from frost damage). The plants survived without problem, and when we moved to our present garden in the country, I was able to take my potted collection along.