Harbingers of Spring

The day before yesterday, the day before we left for a week in California, the hosta spikes poked through the ground. Finally. It’s a day I look forward to every year, this winter seeming longer and colder than most. Sure, around town, the forsythias were already wearing their mustardy yellow coats, daffodils were blooming, and a few street trees had a lacy coverings of white blossoms. And in our shady and wet spot, still mostly brown and bare, the emerging hosta shoots demonstrated that spring is finally coming.

Hosta plantaginea originated in China and were introduced to the U.S. from Japan in the mid-19th century. They were introduced to me about 20 years ago when we moved to Irvington. I fell in love immediately and planted a few different cultivars under the hemlocks next to the driveway. The hemlocks, unfortunately, succumbed to woolly adelgids at about the same time that the hostas, which are a salad delicacy in Japan, became the favorite food of the neighborhood deer.

But those first few hostas, moved to the back yard and protected by deer fencing, have been divided over and over and have spread into masses of ground cover. It’s too early to tell which are which yet (alas, I never label things), but the older ones, which I think are Decorata—green with white edges—been joined by newer standouts, including Band of Gold, dark green with gold bolders; Blue Diamond, small non-variegated and almost turquoise; and Faith, with light green crinkly leaves. Fragrant Queen, with big white streaks, stands out in the darker corners. But the real queen of the garden is our enormous Sieboldiana Elegans, with huge, blue quilted leaves. The most beautiful hostas deserve to be treated like specimen trees, with the opportunity to stand out as individuals in special spots near their perfect partners heucheras and ferns.

Hostas are long-lived (in the Northeast where there are cold winters—my mother was enchanted with them, took home some divisions, and had no luck at all in California). They are easy to divide and trade with friends. They have a distinctive, though bit depressing, season: spikes poke out, leaves unfurl, leaves get big and beautiful, snails eat holes in leaves, flower spikes shoot up, leave edges curl, get yellow and brown, snails eat more holes, flowers die and leave ugly woody spikes that need to be trimmed, leaves yellow and shrivel some more, plants go into dormancy… time to wait for next spring.

Interesting new cultivars are always being introduced, and you can see many of them on the hostasdirect.com database, on which you can compare various species and cultivars by size, leaf length and width, color, margin size and width, streaks, mottles, type of furrows, corrugation, etc.

A few ferns are starting to unfurl their fronds, too.

But in the greenhouse, where everything waits in a 55-degree state of semi-dormancy all winter, things have really busted out. One early spring day, when the world outside is still gray and brown, you walk in there, and wow, it’s all taking off. I gave everything a deep good-bye watering with a little fish emulsion. Can’t wait to start transplanting and moving things onto the deck.

About writedesigner

Graphic designer, writer, and gardener Ellen Shapiro is based in Irvington, New York. A frequent contributor to design blogs and magazines including Print, Imprint, Salon.com, Communication Arts, and Etapes, she writes about trends, issues and personalities in design, illustration, photography, and visual culture around the world.
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