White Centered Hostas

White Centered Hostas

I get a lot of emails that start out "My neighbor says he/she saw a white hosta...."  Inevitably, the writer thinks it would be great to have a pure white hosta in their garden.  Well, it would, except that the hosta would die.  Of course, if it didn't die, you would really have something, cause everybody else's died.  But it would die.

If we think back to biology 101, plants use chlorophyll to produce food, and chlorophyll is green.  My friend Jim Anderson of Winterberry Farms has pointed out that white areas of the leaves, on the margins or in the center, or wherever, are essentially made up of parasitic tissue. These areas without chlorophyll must be supported by the plant, but do not produce any food.

So, if a white hosta can't survive, how did your neighbor see one?  Well, because not everything I write here is totally true. Some of it's mostly true, and as I've said before, sometimes I just make stuff up.  In this case, the information above is mostly true.  Hostas with pure white leaves cannot survive because they cannot make food to keep the plant alive.  But there are some pure white hostas that are only pure white for a little while.  If the white hosta should turn green long enough each year to produce enough food, it can survive.  The process is called viridescence.  At some point during the growing season, the white areas of the leaf turn green, and so technically, it's no longer a pure white hosta.

Obviously, most of us would prefer that the plant would not turn green, but then we would have the pure white hosta, until it died. There are a number of white, viridescent hostas, and most of them that I have tried have not been very vigorous.  We grow two cultivars that emerge with pure white leaves in the spring, 'White Wall Tires' and our introduction, 'Mountain Mist'.  Both of these plants gradually turn green early enough in the season to allow them to survive and multiply. 

White Centered Hostas

White centered hostas are very popular now, and our comments about white leaf tissue applies to them also.  Whether these plants are easy or difficult to grow depends on whether the white center turns green in summer and on the ratio of white center area to green margin.  Again it all boils down to whether the plant has enough green tissue, either in the margin or after the white center turns green, to produce enough food to support the plant.  And for many, the trick is to give the plant as much light as you can without burning the more delicate white tissue to a crisp. 

Plants like 'White Christmas', with a lot of white in the leaf and relatively narrow green margins, can only be grown because the white centers turn green in the summer, and they can only be grown well if they are given plenty of light.  Sometimes you may have to experiment with locating a plant like this to find an area that provides plenty of light without burning the leaves.  And of course, if you are going to give the plant more light, you may have to give it more water to make sure it doesn't dry out.  'White Christmas' is certainly more of a challenge than most hostas, but if you can get a plant that looks like this for even a few months, it's certainly worth it.

(Because of the number of people who have had problems with this plant, we seldom offer it any more.  If you find it offered here or elsewhere and want to try it, it can be grown successfully, but not easily.)


There are some white centered hostas that are not at all difficult to grow.  'Night Before Christmas', at right, which is a tetraploid form of 'White Christmas', has a large, dramatic white center, but it also has wide, dark green margins, so there is enough green tissue in the leaf to produce a large vigorous plant.  'American Sweetheart' is another tetraploid that we have had good success with. Because they are tetraploids, these two also have thicker leaves, and so they have less problem with the white areas developing brown areas and holes, or "melting out", in the summer.

There are a number of other cultivars that are not that hard to grow, but since they are not tetraploids, their thinner leaves may melt out in the summer, especially in warmer areas.  'Summer Music', 'Cascades', 'Lakeside Meter Maid' and 'White Christmas' are among the many white centered plants that are certainly worth trying, even if they are a bit more of a challenge.

There are also a number of these plants that we have given up on.  The fact that we stop growing a hosta doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't grow it.  It just means that for one reason or another, we can't produce the plant profitably.  It may not grow well in containers or grow so slowly that it takes too long to produce a salable plant.

For us, the most disappointing of the white centered hostas was 'Remember Me', the white centered form of 'Halcyon'.   Our supplier donated a portion of the cost of each plant to breast cancer research, so we wanted to sell it.  It wasn't that we couldn't grow the plant, it was just so slow that we finally gave up on it. On the other hand, we've seen some beautiful specimens in other people's gardens, so you might want to try it. 

We've also given up on all of the white centered sports of 'Francee', Patriot', and 'Minuteman'.  There are a number of these on the market, 'Fire and Ice', 'Loyalist', 'Flash of Light', and probably more that I can't think of.  All of them are beautiful plants, but I've not had good luck with any of them.

Some gardeners are adventurous types who consider hard to grow plants a challenge and are willing to try anything once or twice.  And there are those who cry for three days every time a hosta dies.  If you like to experiment, don't let my experiences hold you back. Just because I don't grow some of these plants for sale doesn't mean I don't grow them for myself.  Not all hostas perform equally in all areas of the country, and plants that may not do well in my area often grow much better further north.