Fragrant hosta — a treasure worth planting

Submitted photo/Laetitia Sands
Fragrant Bouquet Hosta is one of a number of hostas that produce sweet-smelling blossom in summer.

A friend of mine has fragrant hosta growing near her front door. I never knew such a plant existed. She bought it at Lowe’s in Easton years ago, she said, and she doesn’t know its name.

Hosta, which everyone and their cousin grows in shady areas, especially around house foundations, has always looked boring to me. Its leaves, sprouting from squat clumps, resemble green plastic, in my eyes. The flowers dangle above like strips of worn-out underwear. And they’re always disappointingly scentless, in my experience.

Then I sniffed my friend’s hosta. A revelation! Divine fragrance! Like freesias, jasmine, magnolia, tuberoses and honeysuckle melded into one amazing perfume. How could I not have known about such a plant for all these years?
“It’s the only hosta that’s fragrant,” my friend confided. Was that true? I wondered. It’s wise to double-check information, even if it comes from a knowledgeable friend. So I set out to do just that.
My gardening encyclopedia Botanica describes hosta, known also as Plantain Lily, as a frost-hardy perennial native to China and Japan. Gardeners and floral arrangers value the plant for its decorative foliage, which may have white, yellow or pale green edges and, in some varieties, splashes of these colors on the leaves themselves. The blossom, similar in appearance to the flowers of freesia, runs from white to purple and various shades in between.

Hosta ‘Honeybells’ sounded promising. Of its flowers, the book said: “Some are pleasantly scented in the evening.” But I’d smelled my friend’s hosta in the daytime.
Then, I came across Hosta Plantaginea, also called August Lily and Fragrant Plantain Lily. Now we were cooking with gas! This variety was said to be popular for its pure white, fragrant flowers on stems almost a yard long. The leaves grow in a mound some three feet wide and when the light reflects off them, they look shiny. Hosta Plantaginea’s flowering season, late summer, matched that of my friend’s plants.

Next I turned to the web, where I discovered a wide selection of fragrant hostas. Some flower in early summer, some in mid-summer and others in late summer and September. If one planted an assortment, one could have fragrant hostas blooming throughout the season and into early fall. Perfect for a shady garden.
Online vendors trumpeted hosta as “the number-one-selling perennial in the United States.” (Why didn’t I know this?) The plant thrives in a variety of soils, although it prefers moist, well-drained ground. It grows fast and can live for decades, they wrote. Often called “the perfect perennial,” hostas are “one of the best foundation plants” and ”hugely popular” due to their easy maintenance and tolerance for shade. You can divide the plants in fall or spring, but there’s no need, unless you want more plants, one website said. What’s more, the flowers attract hummingbirds and, in some cases, songbirds.

As for enemies, slugs sometimes make holes in immature leaves, but once the leaves have matured, they’re tough, thick and slug-proof. Never use pesticides to deter slugs because they will harm the hummers. (My own slug weapon is beer, which, when poured into a shallow dish placed in the ground so the lip is level with the soil, works wonderfully. The slugs flock in for a free drink, overdo it, and drown.)
Deer and rabbits sometimes eat hostas, the websites noted (uh oh!), but a bag of ivory soap tied to a stick stuck in the ground will repel deer, one site said. I found no advice on how to keep away rabbits, but I’ve read in the past that they hate lambs’ ears, a silvery, furry little plant that looks charming planted around a bed of hosta.

More advice: One website suggested planting hosta under trees. The light there is perfect because hosta, known as a shade plant, actually prefers sunlight for a few hours a day, or alternatively, filtered light throughout the day. My friend’s fragrant hostas, growing in these exact conditions, in a bed under the shelter of trees, have grown from two plants into a large, thriving colony. But keep in mind that a tree, or trees, will compete for water, so the hosta may need extra watering. Planted in deep shade, hostas are unlikely to grow much, one site warned.
If one became seriously obsessed with hostas, one could join the American Hosta Society, a non-profit with some 20,000 members. How easily one goes down a rabbit hole when searching for information on the net.
Back to the original point, some of the fragrant hostas I found online included: Fragrant Gold, Heaven Scent, Fragrant Dream, Fragrant Bouquet Hosta and Fragrant Blue Hosta. Most cost from a little under $10.00 to about $13.00, plus shipping, for one plant. But bear in mind that shipping can add as much as $8.50 to the bill.

In the buyers’ reviews (never miss those), one customer wrote that the plant he ordered arrived “full of fire ants.” Yikes! Perhaps it’s smarter to buy locally, where one can examine the plants in person and there’s no shipping charge apart from the gas you use to drive to the garden center or store.
I particularly liked the sound of Fragrant Bouquet Hosta, a cultivar of Summer Fragrance and Hosta Fascination (who names plants and are they well paid?). Fragrant Bouquet was appointed Hosta of the Year in 1998, I read. It produces large white blossoms on three-foot long stems in mid-summer and has light green leaves with white borders.

Much to dream about – and possibly save up for. But don’t forget to include divine fragrance in your dreams. In the meantime, happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.