How To Tips On Growing Plantain Lilies In The Shade

Plantain-Lilies are outstanding in two respects. They serve more purposes in shaded situations than any other kind of herbaceous perennial and they are known by a bewildering multiplicity of common and scientific names.

plantain lilies shadePin

Their greatest garden value is in their distinctive foliage, which is handsome from early spring until frost takes its toll in the fall. Their leaves commence unfurling almost as early as those of honeysuckle shrubs, while early tulips and forsythia are blooming.

Forms a Compact Clump Varying in Height

Each plantain-lily or hosta forms a compact clump or tuft, varying in height according to species or variety and often twice as broad as high in mature plants.

Because the leaves of the larger-growing kinds arch gracefully outward, especially around the perimeter of each clump, they produce ground-hugging, symmetrical mounds. 

Every leaf of every plantain-lily is conspicuously ribbed. Presumably, it was this resemblance to the similarly ribbed leaves of the common plantain, 

Plantago Major

Plantago major, a weed which was surely found often in the dooryards of our ancestors, that won for hostas the common name of “plantain-lily.”

Even though the flowers are secondary to the foliage in garden importance, they are quite lovely and decidedly welcome in late summer, a time when flowers in shady places are scarce. 

They are borne in racemes usually well above the foliage although, in a few sorts, they are partially concealed among the leaves. 

Each funnel-shaped blossom looks like a lily in miniature, which is not surprising when you realize that the genus Hosta (pronounced HAW-stah) is a member of the lily family. 

Varieties of Flower Colors

Flower colors range from pure white through purple, lavender, lilac, and lilac-pink to almost blue with delicate shadings and interesting combinations. 

The stems or scapes which support the racemes of little “lilies” (and some not so little!) are slender but sturdy and straight. 

Flowers open progressively from bottom to top of the raceme, like those of gladiolus, extending the blooming period of each plant over two or three weeks. 

Various Species Blooms at Different Times: Early July Until October

Since the various species bloom at different times, you can enjoy hostas in flower in your garden practically every day from early July until October if you choose wisely the varieties you plant.

Here generalities must cease because there are many differences among the species and varieties of Hosta. Although the flowers of most kinds are relatively scentless, for example, those of the fragrant plantain-lily and `Honeybells’ are fragrant. 

The foliage may be hues of green from dark to bright, plus frosty gray, bluish shades, olive-green and spectacular combinations of green with white, cream, and even yellow.

General Features of Plantain-Lilies

Although we generally think of plantain-lilies as having big, bold, broad leaves, there are varieties with long, slim, lance-shaped blades and others with small, curling leaves. 

The surfaces of some leaves are smooth, while those of others are crinkly. All have conspicuous ribbing. 

Heights of the different kinds vary from about six inches (not counting the flowers) for the little autumn plantain-lily to at least two feet for big fellows like the Siebold plantain-lily.

Uses of Hostas

Edging and Borders in Shade

In old gardens, one sees plantain lilies used most often for edgings and borders in shade. 

I remember a rather formal Maine garden in which a curving row of stately, large-leaved hostas at least 200 feet long bordered a screen-planting of tall shrubs and evergreens, making a very successful transition from the high background material to the smooth expanse of lawn and producing a remarkable show of flowers in late summer.

In other old-fashioned gardens, one often finds the variegated plantain-lily used to edge borders of shade-tolerant perennials and to outline paths among trees.

Produce A Pleasing Ground Cover Beneath Trees

One of the most satisfactory purposes for hostas is in masses of one or several kinds to produce a pleasing ground cover beneath low-branching trees where grass would not grow well. Except for occasional weeding, such group plantings require little care.

Accents in Perennial Beds and Foundation in Plantings

Some of the bolder plantain-lilies are often employed as accents in perennial beds and in foundation plantings, where their habit of growth harmonizes well with the low lines of modern, ranch-type houses. 

Another interesting way to plant them is singly or in irregular groups along the edges of pools and streams.

As with every kind of plant, hostas should be planted only where growing conditions are satisfactory for them. Hostas thrive wherever ordinary, shade-loving ferns would thrive.

Border Large Group of Ferms

They are sometimes used to border large groups of ferns, where the contrast between their bold foliage and the delicate tracery of fern fronds is superbly effective. 

Naturally here one would want to use the smaller plantain-lilies, like variegated and ‘Thomas Hogg,’ with the little ferns such as maidenhair and Christmas fern, and rugged clumps of `Siebold’ or blue plantain-lily in front of higher-growing cinnamon and ostrich ferns.

One of the finest uses for hostas is in masses filling occasional bays in plantings of shade-casting shrubs. Here again one should choose a variety by size to fit the scale of the planting.

Potted Plantain-Lily in Late Fall

A few years ago, for an experiment, I potted a substantial division of a variegated plantain lily in late fall, put the potted plant in a cold frame to allow it a few weeks’ rest, and took it indoors about Christmas. 

It began to grow immediately and in almost no time its green and white leaves filled the pot, making an attractive indoor foliage plant in a shady window for the remainder of the winter.

Hostas Requirements

Degree of Shade

Outdoors the culture of hostas is equally simple. The plants prefer the degree of shade found beneath an old apple tree or a pin oak, but will amiably tolerate more sun or deeper shade. 

As with many shade-loving plants, the farther north plantain lilies are grown, the less shade they require. They like adequate moisture without sogginess. In short, they grow best in rich, well-drained soil containing abundant humus. 

Prepare the Ground Before Planting

Because they are truly permanent, it is worthwhile to prepare the ground thoroughly before planting them. Work the soil deeply, digging in a generous amount of compost or other humus and, if the soil is heavy, coarse sand to lighten the ground and improve the drainage. 

Plantain-Lilies Set A Little Hill 

Because one thing plantain lilies will not tolerate is water standing on their crowns, it is customary to set each plant on a little hill 1” or 2” inches higher than the level of the surrounding ground. 

Planting: Best Performed in Late Fall

Planting, including divisions of your clumps, is best performed in late fall after the plants become dormant, or in early spring, before growth starts.

The multiplicity of names by which plantain lilies are called is more than a little confusing. They were formerly classified botanically as Funkia, but the currently accepted name for the genus is Hosta. 

Funkia: Generic and Common Name

Nevertheless, many gardeners and nurserymen persist in using “Funkia” as both the generic and the common name. As if that were not confusing enough, the species and variety names of these plants are in a horribly mixed-up mess! 

For a mild example: the fragrant plantain lily is variously known as Funkia subcordata, F. Grandiflora, and Hosta plantaginea. The last seems to be most generally accepted but some authorities prefer to call it Hosta plantaginea grandiflora. 

Buying Plant: During Summer

When buying plants, one of the safest ways is to visit a nursery during the summer and select the kinds you want by personal inspection, ordering them delivered at the proper time for fall or spring planting.

If you order by mail from a distant nursery, choose the kinds you want by the catalog descriptions and order under whatever name that particular nursery chooses to call them.

Specialize Growers of Hostas

A few growers who specialize in hostas and some ardent amateurs seem to be trying quite successfully to standardize the nomenclature to agree with the classification used by Nils Hylander of Upsala, Sweden, in his 1954 treatise: The Genus Hosta in Swedish Gardens.

We find plenty of English common names for hostas here in America. Among them, in addition to Funkia, are Niobe, Corfu-lily, August-lily, and day-lily

The last is the worst to use because it is so generally accepted as the common name for Hemerocallis


August-lily is applicable to some kinds of hostas but not to others. I wish I knew the origin of Corfu-lily. 


Perhaps Corfu, an island off the coast of Greece in the Ionian Sea, was the first spot in the western world to which hostas were transplanted from their original, Far Eastern habitat. 

Niobe: Weep

It is easier to imagine some reason for the name, Niobe. The leaves of the plants “weep” in the sense that they arch gracefully. 

The original Niobe was a mythical queen of Thebes who, as she wept, was changed to stone. Today it seems hardly fair to apply such a doleful name to the lovely plantain lilies.

A Beginner’s List of Plantain-Lilies

Gardeners who have not previously grown hostas can make a good start with the following five kinds. 

Besides being popular and obtainable from most nurseries, they are fairly representative of the different types.

  • Honeybells’ plantain-lily
  • Fragrant plantain-lily
  • Blue plantain-lily
  • Siebold plantain-lily
  • Variegated or wavy-leaved plantain-lily

Honeybells Plantain-Lily

`Honeybells,’ as has been mentioned, is an outstanding hybrid of recent origin. Its large, soft lavender and blue blossoms, copiously clustered atop tall scapes, open in August to fill the garden with a fragrance reminiscent of arbutus. 

Throughout the growing season, the olive-green foliage of this variety brightens any shady corner in which it grows.

Four Kinds in Beginner’s List

The other four kinds in our “beginner’s list” are described briefly in the slightly longer list which follows. 

The species and varieties in this second list were chosen to provide continuous bloom from about the first of July well into October. 

They are listed in the sequence in which they ordinarily commence to blossom.

Siebold Plantain-Lily

Siebold plantain-lily, Hosta Sieboldiana, makes a magnificent clump of big, broad leaves which average 12” inches long by ten inches wide with the pointed tips common to nearly all the species. 

The foliage is a frosty gray-green during the first half of the season, gradually turning to bright green on the upper surfaces. A mature clump is about 2 ft high (the leaf stems are 10” to 15” inches long) and three feet or more across. 

Pale lavender to white flowers on short scapes are sometimes partially obscured by the big leaves but are always the first to appear, sometimes as early as the last week in June.

Wavy-Leaved or Variegated Plantain-Lily

Wavy-leaved or variegated plantain-lily, Hosta Undulata Univittata, is a low-growing variety, rarely over 12” inches high, with tufts of creamy white and deep green leaves whose margins curl and twist. 

Its pale lavender flowers in loose racemes are borne well above the foliage.

Blue Plantain-Lily

Blue plantain-lily, Hosta Caerulea, is a sturdy species with rich green leaves of medium size in a compact clump about 20” inches high surmounted, late in July, by tall racemes of lavender-purple (almost blue!) blossoms in profusion. 

The flowers open wider than those of most kinds, consequently are showier.

Tall-Cluster Plantain-Lily

Tall-cluster plantain-lily, Hosta Fortunei, has quite large leaves of grayish blue-green, usually with a thin white line along their margins. Since the height of this speciesï may vary from 15” to 20” inches, it is a better variety for massing than for borders. 

This is the species with nearly pink, actually lilac-pink, flowers set closely atop 20” inches of stems.

Blunt Plantain-Lily

Blunt plantain-lily, Hosta Decorata, is low-growing with dark green leaves about five inches long by three inches wide, which are bluntly rather than sharply pointed at their tips. 

Showy spikes of lilac blossoms are flaunted well above the 8” – 10” inches tuft of foliage. 

The ‘Thomas Hogg Plantain-Lily’, with showy white margins on its dark green leaves, is probably a variety of this species.

Fragrant Plantain-Lily

Fragrant plantain-lily, Hosta Plantaginea, with rather large, light green leaves in a clump 20” inches high, hay the most handsome flowers. 

Each pure white “lily” is four to six inches long (compared with 1 ½” to 2 ½” inches for most others) and there are 12 to 18 of them on each stalk. 

One of the two fragrant hostas (the other being honeybells), it puts on a brave display during late August and early September.

Lanceleaf Plantain-Lily

Lanceleaf plantain-lily, Hosta Lancifolia Fortis, carries the bloom sequence well into September, but its pale lilac, thickly flowered racemes are scarcely equal in garden value to its shining, dark green leaves which are slender and lance-shaped, six or seven inches long but only two or three inches wide, in clumps a foot high.

Autumn Plantain-Lily

Autumn plantain-lily, Hosta Lancifolia Tardifolia, resembles the preceding variety but is slow-growing and forms very low, six-inch mounds of even slimmer glossy, dark green leaves. 

Its pale lilac flowers, even though small and rather sparsely borne on ten-inch petioles, are admirable for their courage in facing the first frosts of October. 

This variety and the fragrant plantain-lily should be given a light winter covering in northern areas unless snow can be relied upon to blanket them all winter.

44659 by E. S. Henderson