Hostas and Heritage

 

It was a nice surprise to return home from Cornwall to find the latest Plant Heritage Journal waiting on my doormat. Some weeks ago I was asked very politely if I would mind a photograph of Hosta ‘Patriot’, one that I took in my former London garden, being used for the front cover of the spring edition. It is one of my favourite shots, a vivid reminder of the vibrancy of spring.

Hosta ‘Patriot’ is a strong growing, white-margined hosta with relatively thick leaves, helpful for impeding total annihilation by slugs and snails, although not bullet proof. Tall stems topped with scented, lilac flowers appear in summer, but don’t last for long. Bold foliage is the main event. Each spring new shoots emerge from the ground, flushed, violet-purple and highly attractive in themselves. Planting in a pot top-dressed with grit helps to show off the young growth, as well as thwarting molluscs. Hosta ‘Patriot’ remains a favourite and a hosta I’d recommend to anyone looking for a reliable, fast-clumping variety. It will light up a shady spot and thrive in a pot, provided it’s well watered. Unlike most of the plants I favour, Hosta ‘Patriot’ is happy being frozen solid for weeks on end during winter.

Plant Heritage is one of the many brilliant horticultural organisations we have here in the UK, championing the conservation of cultivated plants as opposed to wild ones. Over time, plants introduced into our gardens dwindle or disappear from catalogues, perhaps due to lack of popularity, difficulty in propagation or cost to grow commercially. Through National Plant Collections and the Threatened Plant Project, Plant Heritage promotes the preservation of rare, unusual, old and useful cultivated plants, thus preserving them for the next generation of gardeners to enjoy and for nurserypeople to breed from.

 

 

The spring edition of The Journal celebrates the charity’s 40th year with a lead article debating why the conservation of cultivated plants should be viewed any differently from that of wild plants or animals. It’s an interesting question, especially considering the many benefits cultivated plants offer humankind beyond simply looking pretty. Author and Botanist James Armitage points out: “no other animal seeks to order its environment to meet its aesthetic sense in the way we do. It is an ancient and basic impulse of human beings to select from nature the things they find beautiful and to surround themselves with them – to the extent of creating forms of life never known before“. The challenge here is what happens to these ‘things’ once they cease to be regarded as beautiful or useful. Who is to judge whether their time might come again, or whether they should be surrendered to extinction? It’s a thought-provoking question. When the RHS Plant Finder already lists 2,500 roses, one might well ask whether further choice is needed. Yet our quest for ‘improvement’ goes on, and, mirroring nature, human selection determines which roses survive. Our current fascination with ‘heritage’ vegetables suggests we should not be too hasty in abandoning cultivated plants to the vagaries of fashion. Old varieties still have much to offer, not least a unique gene pool for future plant breeding. In the case of tomatoes, many decades of breeding for fruiting perfection and heavy cropping has left us with varieties prone to blight and lacking flavour. Varieties long forgotten may well enable us to breed plants which combine all the qualities we are looking for … for now at least.

Another article in The Journal celebrates the not-so-humble hosta, pointing out its potential as a vegetable. Tender young hosta shoots are widely eaten in Korea and Japan, prepared in the same way as asparagus shoots. Their flavour is described as peppery. Having eaten young fern fronds in Bhutan, I will now add hostas to my list of edible ornamentals to try. Yet, however tempting, I will not be snacking on Hosta ‘Patriot’, nor will I be serving it at dinner parties. Some plants, kale included, are nicer to look at than to eat. TFG.