Hosta Breeding Program at Plant Delights Nursery

Hosta Breeding Program at Plant Delights Nursery

By and Published January 01, 1996 Updated April 05, 2022

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A Question and Answer Session with Tony Avent and Clyde Crockett, Editor, regarding Plant Delights Nursery Hosta breeding program. 

Clyde - Questions, aka Q's and Tony - Anwers, aka A's

Q - How and when did you become interested in the genus hosta?

A - Actually, I was not a quick learner in school....hosta was the plant genus that I could spell correctly...the rest is history. Also, when I was young, a lot of visits to Jim Cooper's garden didn't hurt.

Q - When and why did you become interested in hybridizing?

A - Hybridizing has always been an interest of mine. Girls weren't real interested in me, so I watched a lot of group plant sex flicks as a kid when the folks were out of town...plant bondage, antherial sex, S&M, Q&Z...the whole sordid world. I thought Behind the Green Door was about hosta breeding...boy, was I surprised!

Q - What training, education, etc. either formal or informal have you had in horticulture/botany/hybridizing?

A - Does walking around in the woods for most of my life count? I'm not like those movies of the guys that were raised by apes, but my wife swears I've got green blood. I've also got a paper here...says I got a lot of Horticultural BS from NCSU. I always say, if you can't baffle 'em with brilliance, befuddle 'em with I guess that's good. My best training in hybridizing hostas came from the bearded guru of Chapel Hill, Bob Solberg back in 1982. I guess Bob is like ole Sampson...if he cut that beard, he'd become really dumb! I also read and reread a lot of the old hosta journals featuring Dr. Kevin Vaughn's articles....didn't understand many, but those scientist types sure have a way with words.

Q - Please indicate in detail what your goals are in your hybridizing program.

A - My goal is to do really weird stuff to hostas...sexual know!

Along the way we also try to create hostas with:

    1. fragrant flowers
    2. good leaf substance
    3. plants that grow well in heat and are sun tolerant
    4. vigorous plants that grow fast and multiply quickly
    5. red leaves
    6. improved attractiveness of flower shape using H. yingeri
    7. attractive distinctive leaf patterns, i.e. H. White Wall Tire
    8. dwarf vigorous deep blue hostas
    9. stoloniferous blue hostas and gold hostas
    10. large fragrant blue hostas
    11. fragrant gold hostas that are actually fragrant and actually gold
    12. more hostas with nice white flowers
    13. late flowering hostas
    14. incorporation of as many species as possible into breeding lines
    15. heavily rippled foliage on very large and very small plants
    16. better names

Q - Which pollen parents do you use to accomplish your goals?

A - I use many different pollen parents. In 1994 for example, I used over 50 different pollen parents including H. Fall Bouquet (red petioles), H. Halcyon (blue foliage), H. Hirao Tet (dwarfs), H. plantaginea (fragrance), H. Big Daddy (corrugated blue foliage), H. Sparkling Burgundy (shape and red petioles), H. Maekawa (large white backed leaves), H. venusta (dwarfs), H. yingeri (good flowers), H. ventricosa (good flowers), H. Invincible (fragrance, substance), H. Potomac Pride (flowers, vigor), H. Abba Dabba Do (shape), H. Elvis Lives (long leaf shape), and H. montana macrophylla (size).

I am also now doing a tremendous amount of self crossing using our own breeding lines. An example of the parentage of a cross 95-164, is 90-149 x 92-85. To further break this down into how this came to be, we find that the following occurred:

H. 90-149 (H.89-2 ((Beatrice x OP)) x Blue Umbrellas ((H.Tokudama x Hosta sieboldiana Elegans)) x 92-85 ((90-34 ((Christmas Tree Gala ((H. Frances Williams x H. Beatrice)) x H. sieboldiana)) x Elephant Burgers (H. Fortunei x Op)...can you spell confused!

The result is a nice large streaked plant which will be further evaluated when the variegation settles out into an edge or a center (which ALL streaked plants will eventually do).

Q - Which pod parents do you use?

A - Since we do a lot of breeding for variegated plants, we use a lot of streaky parents...unstable parents create the most unique offspring...true of people too! Our first 5-10 years was spent creating our own breeding lines. Too many folks use the breeding lines of others, and consequently their offspring are too similar to those of other breeders. Just like isolated pockets of mountain folk...they wear the good genes out real fast! We have about 100 different streaky pod parents that we use...each with different parentage, blooming times, size, etc.

Other pod parents for breeding lines might simply be a plant of mixed species...i.e. a parent with H. ventricosa, H. yingeri, and H. kikutii all mixed together. Don't believe everything you hear or read about plants. Some of most interesting crosses have been from things that are "impossible".

Our new Hosta White Wall Tires, came from the supposedly sterile Hosta Undulata. Hosta Waving Wuffles, and some of our crosses under evaluation were created using Hosta ventricosa as a pod parent (in theory, not possible due to apomixis. We have found that Hosta yingeri as a pollen parent seems to overcome the apomixis. Hell, my hostas can't even spell apomixis...why would anyone want to participate in sex without sex...boring!

Much of our work from now on will be focused on back crossing our own breeding stock. Many times, some of the desirable traits that you would like for a hosta to possess are recessive. By selfing the hosta, or crossing it back to one of it's parents (I know this sounds illegal), the desirable trait is expressed. For example, a recent cross of H. venusta x H. plantaginea yielded some fragrant offspring, most with small flowers. Perhaps by self pollinating these seedlings, I will get a wider range of the possible gene combinations, including possibly a dwarf plant with large fragrant flowers.

Doing this so-called line breeding is time consuming and not as exciting to most breeders. This, however is where many of the wonderful hybrids are due to arise.

Q - Under what conditions do you do your crosses, if you do collect pollen, how do you preserve it, and how do you prevent open pollination.

A - Almost all of our crosses are made in an air conditioned greenhouse. Each of the plants that we use for breeding are grown in containers. Every few days, I select the plants that I will use for the weeks breeding. These are then kept in a greenhouse, which secludes them from any horny insects. This way we don't have to emasculate (plant neutering) the flowers.

The plants remain secluded until the seed are set. Tags with each cross recorded are tied on each stalk below the flower pollinated. If there are extra flowers on the stalks that are not to be used, they are removed. Each cross is repeated on 5-15 different flowers on the same stalk to ensure a representative selection of the seedlings from the cross.

Some pollen is ready earlier in the day than others...fragrant pollen is generally ready later in the day, while pollen from H. sieboldiana types is ready very early. By doing crosses between 10 and 11 am, both types are usually viable during a short overlap.

Prior to having a greenhouse, I loaded the plants in the back of my pickup (w/camper shell). These hostas were taken with me to work, where they were pollinated either in the truck, or in a nearby greenhouse during lunch hour.

When it is necessary to make crosses in the garden, the bloom stalks are covered the day before with our hosta condoms. These are made in various sizes to fit each bloom stalk...some hostas are better endowed than others. Hosta condoms are made from a shear netting that can be found at the fabric stores. The netting is sewn in the shape of a tube get the picture.

I do not save pollen. Instead if I want to cross with an early blooming variety, I will cut off the bloom stalks on the early variety as they appear...before the blooms open. I have found that this will cause the plant to continue to try to flower. I continue cutting off the flower stalks until the other parent is ready for crossing.

Q - How do you treat an interesting mutation? Do you remove the sport or leave it on the mother plant, etc.

A - I remove the mutation as soon as possible, and grow it in a pot until it is large enough to divide. Then I plant one in the ground and leave one in a pot. If it turns out to be worthy of introducing, I don't have to go chopping up my clump to have divisions to sell.

Q - What do you think is possible and impossible in creating new cultivars...stable streaked hostas? How much can flowers be improved in size and color? Your thoughts on red leaved hostas, a truly slug resistant hosta?

A - I think all of the goals that I stated earlier are within our reach...our potential is only limited to the genetics of the hosta plants. If genetic engineering becomes more affordable, then our potentials become virtually unlimited...we could put a firefly gene in a hosta plant for a glow in the dark hosta...this has actually been done with tobacco...I'm not kidding!

As for stable streaked hostas as we now know them, they will never exist. As soon as the supposedly stable streaked varieties are chopped and moved around, they will begin to stabilize.

There will be more hostas like the stable H. Spilt Milk, and H. Northern Mist that are possible. Our H. Out House Delight is a breakthrough plant in that regard. Although it is ugly, the genes have made it a remarkable breeding plant. It's offspring, H. White Wall Tire has a new type of streakiness...perhaps we should call it frosting, that has not been seen in hostas before.

We are rapidly working on flowers, but these will always take a back seat to foliage...what a shame!

Regarding red leaves, I think we are not going to reach our goal going up the petioles. We have had a few yingeri crosses with early season red in the top of the leaves. Perhaps crossing the best of both ends.. will give us the red leaves that we search for.

I think slug resistance is related to substance, but to truly have a slug resistant hosta, I thing genetic engineering will have to play a role.

Q - List the hostas that you have introduced and indicate why you did so...their merits, how you envision their use in the garden, their needs, etc.

A - Okay, here goes:

Hosta Abba Dabba Do - a great gold margined sport of H. Sun Power...very sun tolerant...makes a grand old clump
Hosta Andy Taylor - outstanding dark green matte finish hosta with wonderful pure white flowers ...A August Moon x H. Tardiflora cross...will never knock your socks off, but truly wonderful!
H. Barney Fife - brother to above ...nearly pink flowers 

Hosta Bubba - fascinating op H. Sum and Substance seedling...very glossy leaves...bright red neck...unique. Only drawback is sterility...probably due to abundance of steroids as a child!
Hosta Elephant Burgers - op seedling of unknown parent from a hosta that I found in an old garden...uniquely corrugated foliage...introduced as a breeder only...makes great offspring when used as a pollen parent to put leaf corrugation in fast growing smaller hostas
Hosta Elvis Lives - first plant that I have seen to put blue color into a leaf like H. Green Fountain. Some of our newer hybrids with this are truly stunning...creamy edges...WOW!
Hosta Fourth of July - This is a JC Taylor hybrid that he was discarding. A kikutii like leaf, but nice tall flower scapes in late season...very different...used in breeding
Hosta Little Black Scape - unique seedling from H. Sum and Substance. Leaves emerge green, but change to gold about the time that the nearly jet black scape emerges...very dramatic...not released yet...hopefully soon.

Hosta Out House Delight - a breakthrough plant...white speckled leaves, stoloniferous habit...simply the ugliest hosta ever hybridized, but the best parent...keep you eyes peeled for some real knockouts.
Hosta Patrician - an Ed Skrocki release, vigorous grower with nice yellow edged leaves...great late season floral display
Hosta Potomac Pride - unique hybrid of H. yingeri x H. Blue Umbrellas...a larger plant with spider like flowers...future parent to many spectacular introductions
Hosta Red Neck Heaven - underrated, but awesome plant. This is a selection from seed from Japan of H. kikutii caput-avis. The dark petioles and white backed leaves are awesome...great form!
Hosta Sweet Tater Pie - H. Gold Scepter x H. yingeri - a totally new look in hostas...the leaves look waxy gold, rippled with different colors in each ripple...wonderful yingeri like flowers
Hosta Waving Wuffles - seedling of H. ventricosa with much narrower leaves and incredible ruffling...the clump gets much better with age!
Hosta White Wall Tires - the most talked about hosta in our garden...seedling of H. Out House Delight...makes a large H. Fortunei like clump of white frosted leaves...very vigorous...coming soon to a catalog near you.

Q - Any surprises from your program?
Image of Hosta 'Elvis Lives'
Hosta 'Elvis Lives'

A - Obviously the H. Out House Delight is our biggest breakthrough, followed by H. Elvis Lives. I am real excited about a coming introduction, H. Old Yeller, a cross with H. yingeri and H. Sun Power...pretty incredible...brilliant unique golden color, ruffled leaves, yingeri like flowers....takes full sun...Oh, Baby!I've got three wonderful seedling of H. Sun Power x H. plantaginea...all have the shape of a H. Sun Power clump, and very fragrant flowers. Unfortunately, all are green, and I haven't been able to get them to self pollinate yet...still trying!Almost forgot...did some crosses of H. Maekawa x White Shoulders (actually it was no shoulders, but hey). These plants have the shape and white backs of H. Maekawa with wonderful fragrant flowers...need to work to get the flower scapes a little more upright however!

Q - Of your introductions, which one is your favorite to date and why?

A - Bad question....ask a parent which child is their favorite...good luck getting an answer to that one!

Q - Please indicate one or more of your hybrids that have not been introduced but probably will be (with parentage).

A - As mentioned, H. Old Yeller is coming soon. Also, H. Big Bloomers, a vigorous large growing hybrid (H. Blue Umbrellas x H. plantaginea). Finally managed to get a H. tibae hybrid with a nice creamy edged and branched scapes...still years away.

Q - Do you collaborate with anyone, either as a co-hybridizer or advisor.

A - Not really, breeders all talk, but it would be terrible if we were all going in the same direction.

Q - What are your long range plans?

A - Does a European vacation count? I am going to focus more on line breeding now that we have got large numbers of lines to breed. Our breeding has followed this pattern:

Numbers of DIFFERENT crosses each year:  

1997- 0
1996- 628
1995 - 0, too many plants from the year before!
1994- 750
1993- 82
1992- 130
1991- 126
1990- 117
1989- 242
1988- 4, mostly open pollinated seedlings
1987 and before was pre computer period so we do not have any adequate records

Since we have made many wide crosses (between non related species), we have had a low rate of crosses that set seed...usually around 50%.

As you can see, our breeding program has just begun. You are only seeing the very beginnings of our introduction program. Under accelerated lights and greenhouse growing of seedlings, we are able to flower a seedling in a gallon pot in 6-9 months. We then like to grow these plants in the ground for an additional 5 years before making a determination on their value for introduction.

More Hosta Resources

Check out our series of hosta related talks recorded during our Open Nursery and Garden Days at Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Garden.




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