The Hosta, Native to Asia, Traveled from Europe to America

Over the years I have found the hosta a superb plant for the shade. Today I grow over one hundred varieties in my garden.

Since in a couple of weeks I am talking about my book to the New England Hosta Society, a group which I joined in 1989, I decided to research the history of this plant.

In the nineteenth century the name for the plant was funkia, plantain lily, Japan lily, and even day lily.Vick’s seed catalog of 1889, called Vick’s Floral Guide, wrote this about the hosta: “The Funkia, called the Day Lily, is a very superb autumn flower, very desirable for planting on the side of a lawn or at the edge of shrubbery. It will increase in size and beauty every year. The plant has very showy foliage, prettily veined.”

According to plant historian Denise Wiles Adams the hosta first came to England in 1784.  In her book Restoring American Gardens she writes that the first American reference to hosta plantaginea appears in  the Landreth Seed Company catalog in 1828 in Philadelphia.

The plants are native to China and Japan.  Sometimes they traveled, with the help of plant collectors,  to England and then to America, but also directly to America, notably with the New York nurseryman Thomas Hogg (1819-1892)  in the 1880s.

According to  W. George Schmid’s book The Genus Hosta Hogg, whose father had once held the position of head gardener to English landscape gardener William Kent, imported hostas from his travels to Japan.  But Schmid claims, with the exception of the Hogg plants, all of the hostas in the United States around 1900 originated from European stock.

English garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) wrote about the hosta in his book The Wild Garden.  He said: “The Plantain Lilies [or Hosta] are plants for the wild garden.”

An illustration from The Wild Garden, 1870

Groups of Siebold’s Plantain Lily, an illustration from The Wild Garden, 1870 [reissued by Timber Press]

The Missouri Botanical Garden plant directory gives the origin of the name ‘Hosta’  It says, “Genus name of Hosta, in honor of Austrian botanist Nicholas Thomas Host (1761-1834), was first established in 1812. The genus was subsequently renamed in 1817 as Funkia in honor of botanist Heinrich Christian Funk under the belief at that time that Hosta was an invalid name. Hosta was finally reinstated as the genus name in 1905 by the International Botanical Congress.”

Today hundreds of cultivars, or varieties of hosta, are available.  Many of them in fact resemble one another.

Though certainly not a native plant, the hosta continues to play a role in American gardens.

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