Note: this article first appeared in our July 2019 member newsletter
by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden
Many who know me, know that I’m somewhat fanatical about hostas. Okay, I’m a lot fanatical. To fuel my obsession, I recently discovered several Facebook groups dedicated to hosta gardeners – the American Hosta Society, the Science of Hosta and Hosta Auctions are just a few. It’s a great community of gardeners united around their affinity for what many consider the “friendship plant.” The groups that intrigue me the most are Hosta Seedlings and Growers of Hosta Seeds.
I’ve loved starting vegetable and annual flower seeds for years. Many flower seeds that are started in March will already have blooms in late May. I’ve not really ventured into starting perennials, but seeing some of the seedlings featured in the Facebook group, I’m hooked!
After a hosta flowers, it will often produce a seed pod – one for each bloom. Some hostas are sterile or rarely set seeds. Included in this list are the common varieties of Krossa Re- gal, Undulata, Royal Standard, and others. There are more than 8,000 registered varieties and most will produce seed. however, the vast majority of offspring will look nothing like the parent plant. The only exception is the hosta species known as Ventricosa. It reproduces through asexual embryo formation and its offspring are identical to the parent.
Many new hostas that are introduced to the market are created by intentionally crossing different varieties. Cross-pollination is done by gathering pollen from the anthers of one plant and applying it to the stigma of another. Breeders hope to combine the best traits of two plants into one. Perhaps they want to capture the rippled edge of Dancing Queen and combine it with the upright form of Silver Star to produce an upright rippled hosta. Other traits may include color, corrugation, cupping, size, growth habit, flower, a waxy or shiny leaf, and the list goes on.
Of course, there’s the old-fashioned way of cross-pollination – just letting the bees do the job. Open pollination can produce some beautiful varieties, too. The hard part is culling seedlings and determining which are worth keeping and which end up in the compost heap. Some hybridizers will grow a hosta seedling for a couple years before deciding whether they will register it or not. Hostas are notorious for not showing their full glory until maturing for a couple years.
I’ve collected several open pollinated varieties from my yard and also purchased some streaked seed crosses on- line – this is the most promising way to get streaked or variegated varieties.
Tips for Starting Seeds
- Collect hosta seeds in the fall and store them in a cool dry place or your refrigerator. Hybridizers are currently pursuing hostas with red petioles that reach up into the leaf, as well as hostas with yellow and red flowers. They do not need stratification, so they can be planted at any time.
- Plant about a dozen seeds per each small cup (with drain- age), or in flats filled with a sterile seed starting mix.
- Remember to label your containers.
- Moisten the mix and press seeds on top, then cover with black plastic – hosta seeds do not need light to germinate. The black plastic helps retain moisture and also minimize algae and pests.
- Once they germinate, remove from darkness and cover with a clear plastic cover, then place under grow lights.
- Do not let seedlings dry out – keep mix consistently moist, but not wet. Water from a bottom tray.
- Once they grow to the three-leaf stage, add a week fertilizer.
- Check out this website for much more detailed information and try your hand at hybridizing hostas!
Wisconsin hybridizer, Jeff Miller of Land of the Giants Hosta Farm in Milton, has several varieties he’s introduced to the market. Among them is Giantland Sunny Mouse Ears – the first gold variety of the popular Mouse Ears miniature hosta series. It is an unconventional pairing of ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ and ‘Abiqua Drinking Gourd’ with very thick, round chartreuse leaves.
One of his latest introductions is Giantland Garden Goddess. He named it in honor of his wife, Penny.