Asia: Japan - Korea - China

So far, hosta species have only been found to be native to parts of Asia. The largest number come from the various islands of Japan while smaller collections of species originated in Korea and China. Several European plant explorers "discovered" hostas and started to bring them back to be introduced into Europe several centuries ago.

The first documentation of the genus, Hosta, came from a medical doctor with the Dutch East India Company named Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1715). Dr. Kaempfer was stationed in Japan but was segregated on a tiny island by the Japanese rulers and was not permitted to travel around on his own. Somehow, he was able to get local Japanese to bring him plants and he made a drawing of one that was later identified as Hosta 'Lancifolia'. Unfortunately, he was not able to bring back any live specimens to his native Europe.

Although, by far, most species of hostas come from Japan, the first two plants to be introduced into Europe came from China. It is believed that Hosta plantaginea was first grown in Paris at the Jardin des Plantes in the mid-1700s while Hosta ventricosa found its way to a private garden in London about the same period. According to Zilis (2009), Hosta lancifolia, H. plantaginea, H. ventricosa and H. 'Fortunei' were the first hostas to be introduced into Europe.

Two of the primary early explorers who were later able to actually bring hostas back to Europe from Asia were Philip von Siebold (1796-1866) and Robert Fortune (1812-1880).

Von Siebold was also a medical doctor from the Netherlands who traveled to Japan in 1823. He was able to acquire many Japanese plants that he later brought back to Europe. He returned on a second trip in 1859 and had more freedom to roam around the islands to collect plants. Among these were several species of hosta. Back in Holland, von Siebold was instrumental in setting up the first botanical garden at the University of Leiden.

Perhaps the most common hostas of all belong to the large, blue-green leaf species that bears his name, Hosta sieboldiana (now H. 'Sieboldiana'). It comes from Honshu Island in Japan. The other plant, Hosta sieboldii, is a small plant with narrow leaves that have a slender, white margin of variegation. There is also some debate as to whether this is a true species but, so far, it remains listed as such.

Robert Fortune was one of the first European plant explorers to be allowed to wander freely around China to collect plants. He was educated at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden in Scotland and worked for the Royal Horticultural Society at their gardens in Chiswick in England. They sponsored his expeditions to gather exotic plants to bring back to Great Britain.

In addition to rhododendrons and many, many other plants, Fortune brought hostas back to Europe. One was given his name as a species, Hosta fortunei but Schmid (1991) found no evidence that this plant actually came from the wilds so it was reclassified as a cultivar, Hosta 'Fortunei'. This confusion occurred probably because the people back in Europe figured that the plants all came from wild populations. In reality, the local Japanese people who procured some of the plants for the explorers may have gotten them from private or temple gardens where they had been growing in cultivation for hundreds of years.

Modern day plant explorers continue to periodically scour Japan, Korea and China in search of new species of plants that might be prime for introduction into America, Europe and other countries. In fact, in 1985, an American horticulturist, Barry Yinger, was searching in remote areas of South Korea when he discovered two new species of hosta. One of them was named in his honor as Hosta yingeri and the other was  H. jonesii. The second new species was named for botanist Dr. Samuel B. Jones of the University of Georgia who helped Yinger identify the plants.

Latitude Comparison Map

The native lands of hostas are in East Asia generally between 30 and 45 degrees north latitude. As you can see on the map, this roughly corresponds to just below the border with Canada in the north down to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. Some hostas are grown in areas north of the 45th parallel especially in the Pacific Northwest where winters are mild or in places like Minnesota which generally receive good snow cover.

A greater challenge for hosts occurs in certain areas between the 30th and 45th parallels because of hot, dry summers. In the United States, for instance, it is difficult to grow hostas in parts of California, Nevada and Arizona because of the lack of rainfall and, in some cases, the absence of winter cold.

Mr. PGC Comment: An interesting fact is that most of Great Britain lies north of 45 degrees latitude but they have the benefit of warm sea water that moderates their climate year around. Their winters tend to be warmer and summers are often cooler than other areas of the world at a similar latitude such as the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Hosta Native Growing Environment

In their native environments, hostas are found growing in a large range of conditions. Some grow in woodlands while other prefer grassy plains. Many are found growing precariously from cracks in solid rock cliffs. Although some of these sites are shady, many are in the full sun. Rather than sunlight, the key factors seem to be the air temperature and moisture levels. This may be part of the reason why hostas will thrive in higher levels of sun exposure in northern gardens than they do in the southern part of the U.S. where both day and night summer temperatures tend to be much warmer.

It appears that most of the hostas that we commonly grow in home landscapes originated from the margins of the forest or from open grassland areas in Asia. Other species that have not been quite so popular to this point in the home garden often come from quite different environments. Hosta hypoleuca is found growing in pretty dense shade as well as on full-sun cliffs in the mountains. Hosta longissima with its narrow, long leaves is native to damp meadows and grows among tall Miscanthus grasses at the higher elevations on Japanese islands. The miniature species, Hosta venusta, is sometimes found growing on moss covered trees like an epiphyte. Sphagnum peat bogs are the home of Hosta alismifolia while Hosta kiyosumiensis grows on the banks of streams and in swamps.

One other common characteristic of the native lands of hostas is that they all are in temperate regions of the world. This means that they regularly experience killing frosts in the autumn and freezing temperatures throughout the winter months. This is why most hostas need to go into cold dormancy for part of the year.

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