A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Hydrangea aspera, Shark Skin & Hostas
Friday, August 21, 2009

Rebecca and I have been commissioned to write an essay for the Hosta Journal which is a beautiful thick and glossy publication of the American Hosta Society. I have written for it before and I have even had a few front coversm(below left) and back covers, too. This time around I am extremely excited as our theme is how to get children into gardening and hostas. What is unusual is that we are not going to write a joint essay but two separate ones.

In 1986 when Rosemary and I (and our two daughters Ale and Hilary ) moved to our present home on a corner lot we were ignorant gardeners (Rosemary knew a bit more) faced with mature garden with large shrubs and trees. There was a lot of shade. I consulted garden books and they all mentioned ferns and a strange plant I had never heard of called a hosta. My interest in gardening began with this faithful cast iron plant that requires little tender loving care.

My interest in this plant that originally came from Japan, Korea and China increased to the point that I became a member of the American Hosta Society and traveled to my first national convention in Columbus, Ohio in 1992. I was befriended by all the host gurus like Alex Summers, Mildred Seaver and George Schmid. These gurus and many others were involved in the selection and discovery of many of the plants in my garden. The names of my hostas suddenly had faces attached to them. To this day every hosta in our garden has a face. I know why specific cultivars have the name they have. Many are inside jokes.

In 2004 when Rebecca was 6, Rosemary and I used the excuse of going to the American Hosta Society Convention in Washington DC to take her along with us. Rebecca met Alex Summers, Mildred Seaver and George Schmid. She connected with the first two and in one bus trip to see a garden she sat with Alex Summers (the founder of the AHS) and they chatted at length. I have no idea what it was they talked about.

At the convention Rebecca studied all the leaf specimens and she inspected the hostas in the show gardens. She went nuts over the then brand new and extremely rare Hosta ‘Blue Mouse Ears’. In my suitcase home I brought a tiny hosta, ‘Cat’s Eye’ which I divided. One was for me the other for Rebbeca.

Taking the DC Metro to the Mall (we were headed to the National Gallery) Rebecca spotted a woman who had an AHS convention pin on her dress. Rebecca casually went up to her and said, “My grandfather has Hosta ‘June’." The woman retorted with, “I have ‘Emily Dickinson’." Rebecca fired back with Hosta ‘Marilyn’ and Hosta ‘Janet’. Both kept at it until they ran out of women’s names. It was only then that I found out that Rebecca had memorized most of the names of the hostas in our garden in Vancouver.

Since then Rebecca and I have had a parallel growth in our interest in plants. Hers has been more accelerated and she has told me flatly that she does not want to write an article on how to get children to like hostas, “I would rather write about my interest in roses.”

I had to explain to Rebecca how the hosta became, for both of us, our entry into gardening and thus a hosta is a good plant for children to learn about gardening. As they become confident in their cultivation they can tackle more difficult plants. I have also shown Rebecca that come mid August when the roses wane and Rosemary’s perennials are in decline, it is the hosta that comes into its own. I showed her how some of the yellow hostas bleach out into wonderful gold colours and how the fragrance of Hosta plantaginea with its fluorescent white flower can almost compete with the fragrance of an old rose or a Magnolia grandiflora.

Rebecca will tell you that the flower featured here is from a Hydrangea aspera. There are many variations of this plant that originated in Nepal. I have three of them. This one we call the “straight aspera” although after consulting Hydrangeas – A Gardener’s Guide by Toni Lawson-Hall and Brian Rothera I suspect it is probably Hydrangea aspera ‘Macrophylla’. While Rebecca has never touched a skark’s skin ( I did in a Mexican fish market) she will tell you that aspera comes from Latin and it means rough textured and with your eyes closed touching an aspera is exactly like touching a shark. In the scan here you can see that the rough skin acts as ‘fly paper’ to the flower’s pollen.

Rebecca and I are going to walk in the garden on Wednesday before we write our essays. She will note that the only competition that the hostas have right now are from the equally faithful and easy to grow hydrangeas.


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