Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hostas in the Garden, a little History

Golden Tiara Hosta

Hostas are natives of the East and of Japan in particular, and when they were first discovered by Westerners their correct placing in the plant kingdom was not at all clear. Englebert Kaempfer (1651-1715), a doctor and botanist with the Dutch East India Company, was the first Westerner ever to see a hosta and certainly the first to draw and describe one. He gave them names in the discursive, pre-Linnaean style. One he called Joksan, vulgo gibbooshi Gladiolus Plantagenis folio (meaning 'the common hosta with the plantain-like leaves'); the other he named simply Gibbooshi altera (meaning 'the other hosta'). The next doctor and botanist to work at the Dutch East India Company's trading post in Japan, Carl Thunberg (1743-1828), renamed them in the then new Linnaean binomial style, calling one of them Aletris japonica, transferring it to the genus Hemerocallis in 1784.

The generic name Hosta was first proposed by the Austrian botanist Leopold Trattinick (1761-1848) in 1812. It honors an Austrian, Nicholas Thomas Host (1761-1834), who was not only a botanist, the author of Flora Austriaca and a work on grasses, but also physician to the Emperor Frances II. A further generic name, Funkia, was then proposed by Kurt Sprengel in 1817, but this name was eventually to be rejected as illegitimate. However, it passed into many European languages as the common name for hostas.

Meanwhile, the hostas themselves had started reaching the West. The first species to arrive was H. plantaginea, seed of which was sent by the French consul in Macao to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris somewhere between 1784 and 1789. Originally called Hemerocallis plantaginea, this hosta was soon grown by the thousand in public gardens in France. Another Chinese species, H. ventricosa, followed soon after.

The main influx of hostas to the West was started about 40 years later by Philipp von Siebold (1791-1866), another of the several doctor and botanists who worked in Japan, his first shipment of Japanese hostas reaching Europe in 1829. He was subsequently followed by other famous plant collectors such as Robert Fortune (1813 -1880) and the American Thomas Hogg Jr (1819 -1892).

The practice of introducing hostas from their native countries to the West still continues to this day. In 1985 an expedition mounted by the US National Arboretum brought back two new species of hosta from Korea, H. yingeri and H. jonesii.

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