Just like with any product or commodity, there is always the desire to “build a better mousetrap”, and hosta breeding is no exception. As long as hostas have been a popular perennial, blue foliage hostas have led the list of most popular.
The blue foliage of a hosta isn’t actually caused by blue pigment. Instead, the blue appearance is caused by a thick accumulation of wax on the outside of an otherwise dark green leaf. The thickness of the wax coating determines the intensity of the blue color. In hot or wet climates, the wax coating eventually degrades, and all that remains in the green base coating. This is why blue hostas eventually turn green in hot, humid summer climates. Not to worry, since the blue color will be back again when the hostas re-emerge in spring.
The Origin of Blue Hostas
Virtually all blue hostas originated from two parents, Hosta sieboldiana and Hosta 'Tokudama'. Each 4' - 6' wide clump of Hosta sieboldiana is composed of very thick, round, corrugated powder blue leaves and topped with pure white flowers in early spring that rise just above the foliage—a characteristic of all early blooming blue hostas. Hosta 'Tokudama' is an elegant but essentially a smaller version of Hosta sieboldiana with more cupped leaves and a slower growth habit. It also has an extreme distaste for hot weather.
The most important breeding for blue hostas in the early days of hosta breeding was done by the late Eric Smith while working at the famed Hadspen House in England. One year, a late-flowering small, glossy green hosta, Hosta 'Tardiflora' (a selection of Hosta longipes) was in bloom, and thanks to a rare occurrence, the spring flowering Hosta sieboldiana produced a rare fall stalk of flowers. Being a plantsman, Smith seized on the opportunity and began to make a series of crosses between the two plants.
Smith continued to breed with his newly created offspring, and eventually named a number of intermediate hybrids that shared characteristics of both parents...mid season flowering with both white and lavender flowers and good blue leaves. These hybrids are known as Tardiana hybrids.
Of the plants that Smith named, some of the best blue hosta include Hosta 'Hadspen Blue', Hosta 'Blue Moon', Hosta 'Dorset Blue', Hosta 'Harmony', Hosta ‘Brother Ronald', Hosta 'Camelot', Hosta 'Blue Wedgwood', and Hosta 'Halcyon'. Of these, Hosta 'Blue Moon' and Hosta 'Dorset Blue' are quite small reaching only 1' wide at maturity. Others, such as Hosta 'Halcyon', can make impressive 3' wide clumps.
Fragrant Blue Hostas – The Next Breakthrough
The next big breakthrough in blue hostas was with the introduction of fragrance from Hosta plantaginea. This resulted in the cultivar, Hosta ‘Fragrant Blue’. Sadly, the lack of vigor and the lack of noticeable fragrance kept this blue foliage hosta from becoming an industry standard. Because breeding hosta for fragrance is quite difficult, no one has ever dramatically improved this line of blue hostas.
The next breeding breakthrough in blue hosta breeding was the introduction of our Hosta ‘Elvis Lives’ in 1995. Although not possessing the powder blue foliage of Hosta ‘Halcyon’, it was the first popular hosta to have long, ruffled blue leaves.
Hans Hansen Adds a Bit of Elegance to the Blue Hosta
This was followed years later by the work of Hans Hansen. Instead of the typical round, corrugated blue leaves, Hans focused on creating long, narrower blue leaves with a more intense ruffling, which lead to the introduction of Hosta ‘Neptune’, an offspring of Smith’s Hosta ‘Halcyon’ and the Japanese Hosta ‘Maekawa’. Another cross using Hosta ‘Maekawa’ led to another similar, and equally popular blue leaf selection, Hosta ‘Joy Ride’ (2016).
By combining Hosta ‘Neptune’ genes with Hosta ‘Niagara Falls’, Hansen was able to create Hosta ‘Diamond Lake’ (2018), which was the first large round blue leaf hosta with wavy margins and good heat tolerance. Hosta ‘Neptune’ would later lead to an even more elegant, ruffled, pointed blue leaf, Hosta ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ (2019).
What’s Next for Blue Hostas?
Plant Delights took blue hostas in a different direction, trying to create more dwarf blue hostas, building on the work of Eric Smith and the late Herb Benedict, but with more vigor, better offsetting, and heat tolerance. This effort resulted in the introduction of Hosta ‘Gemstone’ (2006) and Hosta ‘Azure Gem’ (2020). Several blue leaf hostas from this program are still in the production pipeline, including Hosta ‘Thumbluelina’ (2024) and Hosta ‘Blue Spoons’ (2025).
Blue hosta breeding will no doubt continue, and we all look forward to the next breeding breakthroughs.