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Whole Lot of Hosta

August 26, 2021

By: Jon L. Peter, Curator & Plant Records Manager, Royal Botanical Gardens

Visitors to Royal Botanical Gardens often ask, “where are the flowers?” My answer will depend on the time of the season, but I often suggest to guests that they look beyond the eye-popping roses and coneflowers to the small inconspicuous flowers, like those of the spicebush, and the multitude of colours, patterns, and textures which can be observed in the foliage of plants.

The true superstars of foliage are plants from the genus Hosta. This is a very popular group of plants (just ask a hostaphile) which are generally grown for their leaf diversity. This member of the Asparagus family (Asparagaceae) is known as Plantain-lily but is commonly referred to by the genus name, Hosta. The genus was named by Austrian botanist and mycologist Leopold Trattinnick in 1812, in honor of Nicholas Thomas Host, the Croatian botanist and first director of the botanical garden of Belvedere in Vienna, Austria.

Hosta 'Lakeside Paisley Print'
Hosta ‘Lakeside Paisley Print’ (RBG accession 20180145*A) Hosta come in many textures like crinkled, ruffled, wrinkled, smooth, ridged, twisted, puckered, cupped, folded, wavy, flat, corrugated, and can even be described as having a pie-crust texture.

Hosta are rhizomatous or stoloniferous herbaceous perennials with upwards of 45 unique species native to eastern Asia. Since the mid-19th century, they have been hybridized and mutations selected to produce more than 12,000 named and registered cultivated varieties (cultivars) and likely many thousands more which are not registered. Hostas gained popularity momentum in the 1980-90’s when a rush of new introductions became available. Many of those early introductions can be found in RBG’s collection.

At RBG, we grow more than 3050 individual plants across all our gardens, with 203 accessions representing 142 taxa (unique types) in the genus Hosta. We will be adding another 40 taxa to the collection this fall. You can find concentrations of Hosta in the Hosta Walk at Laking Garden and throughout the Rock Garden.

Hosta 'Designer Genes'
Hosta ‘Designer Genes’ – RBG accession 20150461*B – Usually the leaf blades and petioles of Hosta are the same colour. Over the last two decades there has been a breakthrough in Hosta hybridization. Some cultivars are now featuring purple and red petioles like this ‘Designer Genes’ cultivar. This will lead to further hybridization efforts which could see the reds and purples extending up into the leaf blades. Can you imagine?

These gorgeous ornamental plants are happy in deep shade to full sun. Yes, many hostas will grow well in full sun! They are great paired with other foliage and flowering plants and play well with spring ephemerals planted amongst the masses.

Hosta 'Orange Marmalade'
Hosta ‘Orange Marmalade’ – RBG accession 20150622*A – Although some plantain-lily cultivars will thrive in full sun locations, this accession was not doing so well in its original sun exposed location. We transplanted these plants in spring 2019 and they are now flourishing as they brighten up a dark corner of the garden.

Hosta ‘Orange Marmalade’ (RBG accession 20150622*A) Although some Plantain-lily cultivars will thrive in full sun locations, this accession was not doing so well in its original sun exposed location. We transplanted these plants in spring 2019 and they are now flourishing as they brighten up a dark corner of the garden.

Hosta 'Elegans'
Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ – RBG accession 20150470*A with Cornus alternifolia ‘Wstackman’ sold as: GOLDEN SHADOWS® – RBG accession 20140473*D – Hosta, the ‘king’ of foliage plants can make for some glorious plant combinations. I love how the variegation patterns of these two echoes and enhances each other.
Hosta 'El Nino' (2)
Hosta ‘El Niño’ – RBG accession 20170131*A – One of my personal favourites is ‘El Niño’, which pairs well with many other plants, just outside the Rock Garden Visitor Center. This cultivar is defined by foliage with crisp white margins and blue-green interiors.

Now let’s bring this back full circle to the original question of “where are the flowers?” Since we generally associate Hosta with dramatic foliage, would you believe that Hosta can also put on quite an impressive flower display?

Hosta ventricosa
Hosta ventricosa (RBG accession 851292*A) This species Hosta is one of the oldest hostas in cultivation having been discovered in the latter part of the 18th century. It displays some of the most striking flowers, with tall scapes of dark purple buds, opening to flowers with purple stripes.

From spring to late summer, Hosta cultivars will begin sending up scapes of flower buds. I will admit that frequently the flowers are underwhelming shades of lavender or white but there are cultivars with flowers that have amazing fragrance, cool patterns, vibrant colours, and the flower scapes can range from short (sitting just above the foliage) to quite tall, which can help enhance the drama in the garden. Although Hosta are not native to North America, the flowers are frequently visited by native pollinators like bumblebees and even the occasional hummingbird!

Purple hosta blooms
Un-identified cultivar with dark purple flowers
Hosta ‘Guacamole’ (RBG accession 20150118*A) featuring pure white flowers with wide spreading petals.

In the curation of some of our gardens, I have realized there are two camps of gardeners. One which will remove the ‘ugly’ flowers as they emerge and the other which will enjoy the beautiful flower show. As we try to manage our garden spaces with decreased inputs and outputs, I have encouraged our gardening team to let the flowers remain and to even let them develop fruit and seed, adding length to their season of interest. Even though the foliage of Hosta will crash (wilt and die back) when exposed to a hard frost, some Hosta flower/fruit scapes will remain standing well into winter, providing another dimension to the winter landscape.

So, the next time a visitor asks, “where are the flowers?”, they may be surprised when I tell them to go for a mid-summer stroll through the Hosta Walk in Laking Garden.

Hosta 'Rainbow's End' with green and yellow variegated leaves and pale lavender flowers held on reddish flower scapes.
Hosta ‘Rainbow’s End’ (RBG accession 20150128*A) with green and yellow variegated leaves and pale lavender flowers held on reddish flower scapes.
Hosta ‘Queen Josephine’ (RBG accession 20000218*A) with a nice view to the Laking Garden gazebo.

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