Barnes's “extraordinary collection” of hostas

Barnes's “extraordinary collection” of hostas

The Philadelphia Inquirer
July 11, 2015
By Patricia Taylor

Jacob Thomas personally prepares and places name labels on the Barnes Arboretum's newest hostas—all 400 of them.

The 135 varieties—arranged in careful configurations of ethereal blues, creams, sparkling whites, emerald greens, and chartreuses—then get checked each night before he leaves the North Latch's Lane property.

The only East Coast hosta display of its size and stature north of South Carolina means there is a lot to oversee—and to enjoy.

It's a collection nine years in the making - a result of the vision and planning of the Delaware Valley Hosta Society (DVHS) and Thomas, the arboretum's deputy director for living collections.

"It's an extraordinary collection," said Harriet Cramer, a garden designer and Barnes horticultural instructor. "There's nothing like it in our area."

After the DVHS hosted the American Hosta Society's national convention in 2006, local officers Conny Parsons and Marilyn Romenesko decided they wanted to create a hosta display garden in the Philadelphia area not only to demonstrate the beauty of the plants, but also to encourage others to grow them and appreciate them. The problem was finding a large public space willing to maintain such a garden.

Meanwhile, Thomas was thinking about the future of the Merion campus after its famed art collection was to be moved to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Many of the shaded grounds at the foot of the arboretum's towering trees were devoid of interest. Hostas, he knew, could transform the place.

In 2010, he contacted DVHS to see whether they would be interested in creating a hosta garden, one that would appeal to arboretum visitors and provide a teaching aid for its horticultural-program students. They were.

From there, decisions had to be made. Which of the 3,000 named and registered hostas would be chosen for the 300-foot border, the length of three basketball courts? The goal was to demonstrate the variety of colors and sizes, as well as the distinctive qualities - red stems or rippled leaf surfaces—exhibited by various hostas. All had to be commercially available at local nurseries or by mail order.

While Parsons researched and acquired plants in 2011, Barnes gardeners cleared the soil. The garden was created over the next three years in stages: About 30 hostas were donated from society members; the rest were purchased from nurseries, some of which provided discounts. The green and white Fire and Ice hosta came from the Barnes.

This spring, the American Hosta Society awarded the garden its national status.

Now, strolling through the various borders of hosta combinations is almost like walking through the museum's art collection. There are areas grouped by size: a gathering of miniature hostas, including the 8-inch-tall Blue Mouse Ears topped with dense lavender flowers; or giants such as the T Rex hosta, with a 6-foot spread.

There are old favorites, such as the sun-tolerant So Sweet hosta with fragrant white flowers and warm green leaves edged in white, and newcomers including Wheee! with ruffled bluish-green leaves tipped in white.

One border is devoted to blue hostas, including Blue Hawaii, which blooms white, mildly fragrant flowers in July, and Neptune, with rippled leaves and lavender flowers that come in late summer. (The complete list of hostas is at the DVHS website: delvalhosta.org.)

The arboretum, which hosts a horticultural school, was established in the 1880s by Joseph Lapsley Wilson, who lived on the site before the Barneses bought it in 1922. Laura Barnes expanded its offerings to include unusual varieties of plants. Today, there are about 2,000.

The hostas—like the picnics you're allowed to bring to the Merion property—are at their best through October.