Episode 07: Hosta Glen

One of the most popular collections at the Bickelhaupt Arboretum is not of woody or shrub like plants, but rather of a shade tolerant perennials that are easy for most people to grow. In this podcast, we look at the history, popularity, and benefits of hostas. These plants have a unique history that can be traced to its origins in Asia. The collection at the arboretum can be traced to a passion that David Horst had and that was encouraged by the arboretums advising board. He will tell us how this very popular collection came to be in 1986. He will also tell us how the American Hosta Society has recognized this collection as a display garden and what goes into maintaining a collection like this. Margo will then tell us why this is one of her favorite plants and what the many benefits of growing and utilizing hostas have for people. 


Ryan Welch: 
Welcome to another in our continuing series of podcasts about the Bickelhaupt Arboretum, located in Clinton, Iowa, one of the most popular collections at the Arboretum is their Hosta Glen In part due to its unique design and layout, and in part due to the popularity of the plant itself. 

Hostas are diverse, easy to grow and maintain and are shade tolerant, which, as we will hear about, are just some of the benefits that they offer. The history of the hosta itself, though it's just as interesting as the plant itself and begins in the wilds of mainland China. 

The first species of hosta evolved near the east coast of mainland China and the most primitive species of hosta can still be found there. From there, the species spread and evolve both North and south, taking advantage of various unique climate conditions and diversifying as it went. 

Eventually, the species moved and could be found along the east coast of China, in Korea, a little into Russia and all over Japan. While there are records of people coming into contact with horses as long as 800 years ago, they were most likely not as popular as they are now, since they were just indigenous plants in those areas mostly seen the backgrounds of many wooded areas and forests. As new varieties were discovered, though they were collected, they were propagated and eventually they ended up in gardens in Japan, China and Korea as the first cultivars of the species. 

There was some movement of these plants in terms of importing and exporting among these Asian nations at the time. While at these times they were mainly used in gardens, it would seem that the young shoots could be used as vegetables and as food for livestock. 

The first hostas to reach Europe, though, were of Chinese origins, and it was estimated that they were brought in the form of seeds that were sent to France as hosta plant genius species. This plant was successfully propagated and became a fashion plant, not so much used for landscaping, but rather for a collector's item for the wealthy. 

Not long after this, though, naturalists began to scientifically describe the plant and name it as a species. It wasn't long after this, about 1800, that the first hostas made it to the American soil. While the first few species of horses to head west were of Chinese origin. 

The most unique and coveted hosta varieties were actually in Japan. But due to an odd bit of history, they were really not allowed out of the country legally, that is until about 1829. For many years, Japan had a policy of isolationism in terms of allowing citizens from Catholic nations from being on their mainland islands. 

They did still need to trade, though, and for that they allowed traders from the United East Indian Company, which would primarily Protestant Dutch, to stay on a small island called the Tsushima in the Bay of Nagasaki, which had been specifically built in 1634 just for the purpose of housing traders from other countries. 

It typically had about 20 Dutch inhabitants that under no circumstances were allowed to leave the island for the mainland for any reason. The Japanese even had an army of interpreters on the island to keep these folks under constant surveillance. 

Once every year, though, a Dutch delegation was invited by the Shogun to visit the capital city. Often in this delegation were German doctors that the Dutch had brought along for their own needs. The Japanese didn't notice that none of these so-called doctors, though, spoke any Dutch. 

But when questioned about it, the Dutch delegates would tell them that these men were mountain Dutch and have their own dialect, and the Japanese seemed to accept this explanation. One of these doctors was Englebert Kaempfer, who was a doctor on Tsushima between 1690 and 1692. 

Like many scientists of that time, he was not just a physician, but he also studied languages, history, mapmaking, as well as the biology and ethnology of the island itself that he was on his most likely one of the first westerners to ever see a hosta and also the first to draw and describe the species. 

Now, this was done before Linnaeus had introduced his to naming scientific system, so plant names at the time were rather long, awkward and cumbersome. His description of this plant, though, where some of the first that Western scientists had and other doctors that were stationed on the island of Tsushima, such as Carl Thunberg from Sweden, who was a student of Linnaeus, came along and described these plants now with the binomial nomenclature that Linnaeus had developed. Initially, these plants were put in the genus Hemerocallis, which is the same as the Daylilies. They now, though, have their own genus, of course, which is Hosta. 

That was done in the year 1812 by the Austrian botanist Leopold Trattinnick, who named the plant after his fellow countryman and also a botanist and physician for the court, Emperor Francis, the first of Austria, whose name was Nicholas Thomas Host. 

And that is how the hosta received this Western name and genus. The first hosta shipment to reach the West from Japan didn't actually happened in 1829, thanks to another physician, naturalist, cartographer and all around scientist named Philip Franz Von Siebold, who, after reading the works of many that came before him long for scientific plant adventures in far off lands and signed up with the Dutch army mostly so he could travel and see these places and see the world. His superiors quickly saw his scientific skills and sent him to Tsushima. While there he introduced the Japanese to Western medicine and was able to introduce the West to hostile varieties of Japan. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. Although the Hosta Glenn at the Arboretum doesn't have as international of a history as the hostage itself, it is still an interesting and noteworthy local story. This collection was started in 1992 and now contains hundreds of hosta varieties for people to enjoy. 

It was designated as a display garden by the American Hostage Society in 2004 as one of only three such gardens in the state of Iowa. David Horst, director of horticulture for the Arboretum, tell us how all of this came about and the challenges that designing this area had. 

David Horst: Well, back in the time before we had the hosta glen, and this was back in 1986, at that time, we just had a few scattered hostas throughout the arboretum, and they were common ordinary hostas that the average homeowner would have. 

Keep in mind, this was way back in the eighties and there was just a handful of past us available at that time. They were green ones, maybe a couple of different sizes of green ones, blue ones, and there were white variegated ones, and that was it. 

The arboretum had three or four different varieties growing by a tree up north of the house at that time. And that was basically our hosta garden, which wasn't really a garden at all. 

Ryan Welch: It was just a person would do around their tree. Right at home.  

David Horst: You stuck a few in. Yeah, course it was in 1992. Decided that their room shouldn't store hosta collection. And over the course of the years, it also became known as the Hosta Glen or the Hosta Glade. I personally like to call it the Hosta Glen. 

Ryan Welch: Oh, okay.  

David Horst: My wife, Nan and I have always enjoyed raising the hostas. And so I'd like to think at least, that it was my love for the hostas that was the driving force behind the addition of this garden. 

I know the Bickelhaupts always knew that I liked them, and some of the board did, too. And it was actually kind of my suggestion that we have more hostas here at the arboretum. There were also visitors coming at that time that were inquiring about Hostas, too. 

Ryan Welch: Oh.  

David Horst: It was a 1992, like I said, that we just took the first step and decided that it's time that we have a has to garden. 

Ryan Welch: Well, the Bickelhaupts initially had a few old varieties of hostas when they first arrived in 1986, a board member named Dr. Ed Haskas, who was in charge of the University of Wisconsin's Longenecker Garden in Madison, helped to encourage Dave to pursue the idea of the Hosta collection at the Arboretum. 

He did this by donating some of the first varieties to the collection and getting Dave hooked on Hostas, as he says. From there, they had to pick the correct location on the grounds and begin the work of what would become the Hosta Glen. 

David Horst: The first step after that decision was made to have the hosta collection. Was where should we put it? Yeah. And it's very important. You can't just go and plant hostas out in the fall sun. 

Ryan Welch: Exactly. Just like all the other planning that's been done with all the other collections. You know, location is key. And if you're going to put them here, you've got to make sure you've done your due diligence to make sure they're going to last and then they're going to be showcased the way they need to be showcased. 

David Horst: That's right. You want it to be successful. 

Ryan Welch: Exactly. 

David Horst: So the obvious choice to us was the wooded hillside over on the west border. There were some larger trees there that provided the necessary shade that hostas need to look their best. At this time, this was a wild area that wasn't even developed as part of the arboretum. 

There's also a lot of undergrowth growing here and it had to be cleared out and that took some time. We then formed an edge around this area. It was like a large bed, if you will. Okay. When we got done clearing out the brush and we formed an edge around it and put down some sod to help form this nice shaped bed, which was kind of an irregular oval, I guess you could say. And then another important issue that we had to deal with it at first we didn't think of, but this was on a hillside. 

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

David Horst: And we laid out a trail with our marker paint guns. So we could see how it was going. Like the bed was too wide to just plant and look and view from the outside.   

Ryan Welch: Oh Yeah. 

David Horst: People wouldn't be able to read the labels on the plants towards the center. 

Ryan Welch: And then you've got people trying to walk through your bed trying to figure out what hostas 

David Horst: Exactly. 

Ryan Welch: Because, of course, the one in the back was the one that probably they wanted. 

David Horst: That's right. Yeah. That's how it always works. So we knew we had to put a path in through the center. Oh, okay. And this was kind of a free formed pass. It kind of just weaved back and forth in the center. Looked quite nice, actually, but the problem was it was on a hillside and after we established where the path was going to be, we started walking it. Well, you felt like you were going to tip over.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

David Horst: And then you could not drive through it with the golf cart, which we felt was important. We have two golf carts we give tours with.  

Ryan Welch: Oh.  

David Horst: We had a lot of the people take on the golf cart are older people, and we wanted them to be able to see the collection up close. Yeah, well, we decided we were going to have to install limestone wall with anamosa stone.  

Ryan Welch: Oh 

Ryan Welch: Now is it called anamosa stone because it came from Anamosa. 

David Horst: Yes. Out near Anamosa. It's very good, hard stone that doesn't break apart through weathering.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah. Through to the usual ways the rocks are broken down. 

David Horst: Yeah, it's some of the best in this area.  

Ryan Welch: Oh.  

David Horst: So we purchased that and we leveled the path by digging and reinstalled this wall. And quite frankly, I think it added a lot to the garden.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

David Horst: In appearance and it made it much easier for people to traverse the path. 

Ryan Welch: Yeah. 

David Horst: Visitor comfort and safety is important. At the beginning when we first laid out the house, the glen. We first started planning in groups or masses.  

Ryan Welch: Okay  

David Horst: Like we'd select the house, then we'd purchase 20 of them or all different numbers. 

We had different sizes of masses. 

Ryan Welch: But every variety you would not just get one plant of the trees. We got one tree, you know, one type of crabapple, you know, 24 different varieties. Crabapple one of each tree, the house houses. You want a little bit different route. 

Yes, you have one variety, but you may have about ten of those varieties planted all together. 

David Horst: That's right. 

Ryan Welch: That's hostas are smaller plants than trees. So it makes a little bit more sense.  

David Horst: Yeah, yeah. To do. 

That. And it was very esthetically pleasing and that was at the beginning to remember there wasn't a large selection of hostas to, to select from. 

Ryan Welch: To work with 

David Horst: So we selected these and so we had like 15 different hosta varieties planted in masses throughout this big bed. 

Ryan Welch: So you only start with 15 different varieties give or take. 

David Horst: Approximately 15. Yeah, but there were hundreds of them, just 15 varieties. 

Ryan Welch: Right. 

David Horst: And then over the years and with the introductions of so many new and exciting cultivars of hostas coming out, I believe there's like eight or 10,000 different ones today that you can choose from. Of course, you'd have trouble finding all of those. 

Ryan Welch: You’d have trouble finding all of them. But I mean, if you look at any probably seed catalog or landscape catalog these days, the variety is probably immensely bigger than it was when you started The Hosta Glen with your 15 varieties.  

David Horst: That's right.  

Ryan Welch: Okay. Yeah.  

David Horst: So over the years we saw all these new exciting selections coming out and there were mini hostas and there were very large hostas and color ranges were terrific. And so we decided we were going to improve the collection, so to speak. We removed a lot of the extras.  

Ryan Welch: All right.  

David Horst: And we kept a specimen or maybe a group of three. 

Ryan Welch: Oh, okay. So you downsized a little bit, but yet added variety. 

David Horst: And created a lot of space to add the variety and the exciting new selections coming out. So we went from like 15 different varieties to today 320.  

Ryan Welch: 320.  

David Horst: So we really increased the number. We also over the years added a couple of extra beds obviously. 

Ryan Welch: Okay. So you didn't put them all on the same either. Squash them all. All right. So you expanded the space a little bit, You expanded the varieties. Now folks have a lot more variety. They can see they can get a better idea of what some of these are going to look like, even some of the ones that they may have seen more recently in the catalogs and whatnot and improved the path. And it's safe to walk on. Easier to walk on. And it's really showcase in this area compared to what it was. 

David Horst: Yeah, it's a huge improvement. Also, we showed different methods that you can use Hostas. Instead of just planting a hosta, a single specimen, or maybe a group of three or five. We put rings around the trees and people found that interesting. It's a simple technique.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

David Horst: It's been around forever. We didn't think of it.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

David Horst: But we liked it when we saw it. And we started doing that in our collection. That look nice. They were. It would be a ring of all the same variety around the tree. 

Ryan Welch: Or on a particular tree 

David Horst: Yeah. And then also since the arboretum supposed to be educational, we would also along the edge of the path, maybe plant a grouping, a single row to define the edge. Oh, so people knew where the path was, the path was. 

David Horst: And it was just to show people another way of using hostas. 

Ryan Welch: As a border, interesting. 

David Horst: As a border.  

Ryan Welch: Yeah. Okay.  

David Horst: And it worked very well. 

Ryan Welch: Okay. Once the collection was put in place, people began to come and enjoy the collection and really take notice of all the varieties that were put on display. One such group was the American Hosta Society themselves, who designated the collection as a display garden for hostas. This is a distinct honor. And the pick off arboretum is one of only three such gardens in the state of Iowa. 

David Horst: In 2004, the American Hosta Society named the Bickelhaupt Arboretum a national display garden. 

Ryan Welch: Oh, okay. 

David Horst: And of course, this is a very nice honor showing our collection of hostas has come a long ways over the years. To receive this honor, the collection has to be well-maintained. It needs to be labeled appropriately and correctly and open to the public for education and enjoyment. 

Ryan Welch: Oh, and we check all those boxes. 

David Horst: And we check them all. And they furnished a real nice bronze plaque which we installed on a nice rock and at the entrance over there for people to see and enjoy. 

Ryan Welch: Okay. Once a collection such as the Hosta Glen is established, the work doesn't end there. David explains what goes into both maintaining and updating the collection to keep it both relevant to the current trends and hosta plants, as well as keep those plants that are in there in good growing conditions. 

Are there any future new plans for The Glen or is it mostly? Right now we're in the monitoring maintenance sort of phase and, and go from there. 

David Horst: We're still in the monitoring phase, and that's really important for us. We're actually being more selective now with all the choices we have. So we're being more selective. And matter of fact, last year we went through the collection and removed some of the poor performers, the ones that there are improvement varieties that we can improve with. 

And we're removing those also on an occasion which lose a tree that's vital for shade. Okay. We had a real nice black maple on top of the hill at the south end that up and died one year and had to be removed while we lost all the shade to the south end so the bird is constantly shifting. 

Ryan Welch: Shifting as the trees that are then it's under either grow and add more shine that's expanded or die in us less shade. And you had to decrease the size of the bed and and shift things maybe in a certain way. 

David Horst: Exactly. And last year we did that with the Black Maple. We took it out. We moved all the hostas, which can be a lot of work, but hostas are easy to move luckily. 

Ryan Welch: Hostas are easy to move. 

David Horst: You can be pretty brutal with them and they'll still do very well. And so we moved all the hostas and filled in the holes and took the tree out and seeded it down. So that's part of the growing of the garden. 

Ryan Welch: Or the changing maybe or the modifying of it. 

David Horst: Correct. So, yeah. Yeah. 

Ryan Welch: Okay. Well, the unique design and hard work that went into the Hosta Glen have made it one of the more popular collections at the Arboretum. Some of the credit also, though, has to go to the plant itself. Hostas have been popular among plant lovers for a number of years and for a variety of reasons, from the sheer amount of diversity that can be found in this plant group to their shade tolerance and ease of working with, especially for a novice plant grower. Margo Hanson, former director of programs for the Arboretum, runs us through the long list of reasons and benefits that she tells people about when they ask her all about Hostas. 

Margo Hanson: Well, the Hosta Garden, we actually call Hosta Glen.  

Ryan Welch: Why is it called?  

Margo Hanson: Well, because it's a glen underneath the trees. And Glen is a term for garden planting. I can't give you the exact definition, but it's a glen it's on a slight hillside, light sloping hillside under the trees. So it's shade with hosta and kind of like the day lilies. Hosta are one and one of my number one plants just perennials to suggest to people to plant for shade locations. 

And the reasons are almost the same as the daily number one, very low maintenance, not too many insect and disease problems, very winter hardy. They are shade plants, but they can tolerate some sun. And there are some varieties now that are much more sun tolerant. 

They can handle pretty heavy shade. They bloom. Hummingbirds love them. Other insects love them when they bloom. And there are all different colors of green. There are shades of blue, there's cream. There are leaves that are called variegated, which means there's more than one color in the leaf. 

Ryan Welch: Also like striped leaves 

Margo Hanson: Right, so it can be it could be variegated. It could be, you know, triple variegated. You can have not so much in hosta, but you can have a green leaf with cream and pink or, you know, different colors that we see. 

And there is a hosta society and there's there are local ones and then there's the national one. So there, there are the hosta geek, that are geeks that are out there that come to the arboretum and look at our different hostas because they're labeled. 

We try to have their names on a label so that when people come, they, they know exactly what that hosta is. So those hosta geeks come and they look at our collection and maybe see something they have or something that they want to add because they see the size and shape and color of it. 

Ryan Welch: It fits in with the landscape they're trying to do in their yard and their area. 

Margo Hanson: Right. And then I love, love it when I take people on tours and I say, How many of you like Hostas? Some will raise their hands. Some say, I don't like Hosta. And then we go to the house to Glen, and I say, How can you not like all of these plants? 

Because hostas have different classifications. Miniature, small, medium, large. I think it's extra large. And then giant, it might be giant. So they vary a lot in size. The miniatures can only be two or three inches tall and the giant ones can be almost four feet tall. 

Ryan Welch: Yeah.  

Margo Hanson: And the leaves are accordingly. The leaves on the miniature are tiny. On the giant ones, they're huge. And they can have a beautiful blue cast to them. They can be almost a lime green, all different shades of green and all different types of varigation. 

So I say to these people, I say that you know your choice. You like them or don't like them, but how can you not like a plant that, as I just mentioned, winter, hardy, low maintenance, very few insect and disease problems ,blooms, the flower stalks are beautiful for arrangements. They're great pollinators. Some are fragrant. In the evening you, you get that scent on. They're really fragrant. It's just, it's fabulous and low maintenance. 

Ryan Welch: Yeah, I have I in many of my travels and many of my places that I've lived, I've always had a hosta or two and the one plant that no matter what has happened, I have never, ever been able to see anybody able to kill them. 

Ryan Welch: I've had dogs which just lay down in them. 

Margo Hanson: Oh my gosh. And sometimes they get mowed over, not here at the arboretum. But people will call and say, Oh, my husband mowed over my house, and now what? And I say, you know, chances are it's going to come back. 

Margo Hanson: It's going to be fine. It's going to come back. 

Ryan Welch: In the place I'm living in now, I didn't realize this until after I'd been there for a couple years. I've got minature houses and they're over. 

Margo Hanson: Exactly. 

Ryan Welch: I didn't know they were there. I don't know how many times I mowed over them not realizing they were hostas. And then later, I think it was they might have said to me, hey, know, those are miniature hostas. What? 

Margo Hanson: Well, in, in in addition to that, they are very easy to propagate. You dig them up, split them, you can share them, you can ring a tree with them and they're shade tolerant. And there are aren't a whole lot or there isn't a very big list of plant that are shade tolerant compared to plants that thrive in full sun. 

Ryan Welch: So I always see a lot of people ring their trees with them. 

Margo Hanson: Exactly. Exactly. 

Ryan Welch: And the flowering stalk is very interesting. It comes up on a stalk as a little cluster of flowers to the top. And believe it or not, my wife, they're one of my wife's favorite flowers. Not for the flower itself, but for when it's not quite open yet. 

Ryan Welch: And she can go in and you can pop ‘em. Oh yeah. She loves to walk 

Ryan Welch: around and 

Margo Hanson: She'll do that. So she's one of those people that pop the little Styrofoam. 

Ryan Welch: Yeah, she is. The little airbag things you get. 
Margo Hanson: I don't think that has to really appreciate a bit, but that's okay. You know, and one other thing, just like the daylily, they can be used for erosion control. So if you have a kind of a steep bank in the shade and you just can't keep, you know, a grouping of hosta could at least break that flow of water. If not, you could do also do a solid so hosta again low maintenance why not and it's one that I really recommend. Plus, on that hillside here at the arboretum, it is just a beautiful carpet underneath those trees. 

And, and if it weren't there, it might be bare soil. It would be hard to mulch and keep mulch on there and had to mow and hard to mow the incline. The incline, and there's not much grass there. 

So it's really going to be a muddy kind of more soil area. So it's a perfect, you know, perfect carpet for underneath.  

Ryan Welch: It’s a good maintenance plan that way. 

Margo Hanson: Exactly.  

Ryan Welch: Exactly. 

And, you know, here are the areas since you're also that you're showcasing the trees, you're also showcasing of the things that can go with the trees, that will help folks maintain their, their landscape and their lawns. And sometimes it's not always the tree. 

Like you said, if you live on a hillside, an area with a large hillside that you can't well, real well, that is shady and grass won't grow there. This might be a good thing to put in there to help with the erosion, with the beautification, with all of those things, all in one. 

Margo Hanson: So, Ryan, how about this, is so low maintenance, all you do is clean them up in the spring. You can let them die down in the winter with the frosts, cut the flower stalks off. If you want, you break up the dead leaves from last year and voila. 

That's it. Yeah. I mean, you don't have to, you know, fertilize them. You don't have to prune them. You don't have to do any of that plus. Hostile leaves. Here we go again. Are great for flower arrangements. It's a wonderful green foliage to use in in just floral arrangements or a base with a few flowers, one or two hosta leaves. Looks like it came from a professional florist. 

Ryan Welch: I've actually got if you have a really big hosta giant, I think we called elephant ear once. I have a cousin who used to take the leaves and she was crafty. I'm not crafty, but she was very crafty. 

And she used to make her bird baths out of them. While she would take the leaf. It would imprint it. 

Margo Hanson: Yes, yes. 

Ryan Welch: Cement and whatnot and then you've got this big birdbath thing that you can put in your yard. 

Margo Hanson: Right. 

Ryan Welch: Have that.  

Margo Hanson: And actually now that you mention that we have done that workshop here. 

Ryan Welch: You’ve done that workshop. 

Margo Hanson: In the past and it's pretty cool. And you've got this birdbath and you paint it or you leave it natural and hosta and the elephant ear bulb leaf worked really well for that. 

Ryan Welch: So as we can see, the hosta has an interesting history from its humble beginnings and Asian forests to its unique scientific study by European doctors stationed by the Dutch on the small Japanese island of Tsushima to its eventual distribution across Europe and ultimately to America. 

Once here, people found it to be very easy to handle and maintain, as well as very shade tolerant. This led to its initial popularity and from there people began creating new varieties, including different shapes from mini to extra large, new shades of greens, yellows and blues, and leaves that were variegated with white stripes in them. 

The Hosta Glen at the Arboretum allows people to view many of these varieties and not only get an idea of what is out there on the market, but also many of the different ways that these plants can be used in their landscapes. 

With all the benefits that come with planting and growing hostas, it is easy to see why they have such a following among both novice and seasoned plant lovers. I would like to thank both David Horst and Margot Hanson for their wonderful insights and information on this subject and to Otis Welch for the musical selection.