From the enormous Empress Wu, which can grow to nine feet in diameter, to the Itsy Bitsy Spider, which grows a whopping 2.5” tall, to literally hundreds of varieties in between -- all will be on display at Ron Dow’s Belfast Hosta Gallery on Friday, July 25, as part of the Belfast Garden Club’s annual Open Garden series.
“Gallery” is indeed the correct word to describe Dow’s garden. Strolling around his property, one wishes only that there were curatorial notes alongside each specimen because each has a story to tell. Wheee! was discovered as an unlabeled mutant at a garden center; Abba Dabba Wow’s parent is – yes, you guessed it – Abba Dabba Do; Frances Williams is an American Hosta Society Distinguished Merit Winner and named for one of the first major hybridizers in the country; and Beet Salad is a fun example of the increasingly popular “red” hostas; that is, those with beet red petioles (the stalk that attaches a leaf blade to a stem) and stalks with rich purple flowers in July.
Dow knows not only the names of his hostas, but their origins, habits, bloom time, height and color variations. He points out whether a leaf is corrugated, cupped, wavy, twisted or has a piecrust edge. Dow explains that hostas are native to Japan, China and Korea, and made it to this country by the mid 1800s. They are named after Austrian botanist Nicolaus Thomas Host (1761 – 1834). “The most common,” he says, “is the Sagae, which is from Japan. Hostas first began to interest landscapers in the U.S. in the early 1980s; today, Sagae is in every garden known to man. It’s always in the “Top 10” list of favorite hostas.”
Dow’s fascination with hostas began in 1986 when he moved to a house with eight hosta plants in the Presque Isle area. Nine years later, when he moved to Belfast (after serving as English professor and humanities department chair at the University of Maine Presque isle), he brought with him 400+ varieties of hostas in pots – which ended up being stored in Ruth Holmes’s backyard until he was able to move them to his new home.
It’s perhaps not surprising that a man who spent his professional career teaching English takes such delight in the clever and creative names that have been given to hostas, including Watermelon Pie, Punky, Raspberry Sorbet, Blue Mouse Ears and Mighty Mouse. He chuckles as he points out Arctic Blast and its thistle-like bloom (“I’ve never seen a blossom like this”) and notes that one of its parents is Elvis Lives. Of the Seducer, he notes its “showy, slightly ruffled gold margins.” Pointing out the Abiqua Drinking Gourd, he explains that it’s smaller than the Millennium (the American Hosta Growers 2014 Plant of the Year), but the cupping is greater. He clearly takes pride in showing One Man’s Treasure, a new hybrid from North Carolina that has varieties in gold, two different shades of blue, and deep green. Stopping alongside the giant Empress Wu, of which he has three different specimens, he says, “hostas like a lot of water and they like to eat. And, when you buy a juvenile, you should know that it’s going to change dramatically when it becomes an adult – just like people.”
There are more than 8,000 named varieties of hostas listed in the United States, and they thrive in Maine. They are easy to grow, easy to divide, and shade tolerant. Dow says that many people have the misconception that hostas can’t tolerate any sun, but that’s not exactly true – except for the blue plants. “The blues are really green with a waxy coating that make the plant appear to be blue. When a blue hosta is planted in the sun and gets hot, the wax melts and the plant ‘becomes’ green again.” Although hostas are shade loving, most will do just fine if they’re simply kept out of the hot mid-day sun. In fact, a lot of variegated hostas look their best if they get some sun early in the day.
Dow enjoys pairing his extensive plantings of hostas with day lilies. He has more than 20 varieties interspersed among his hostas. “When I was asked to be on the tour this year, I was fussy about the date because I wanted the daylilies to be in bloom on the 25th. Naturally, this year they are budding early!” One daylily that he’s especially proud of is an African lily – Zephranthes – that “should be” covered with beautiful pink blossoms on July 25. The original plant was on the property of the Admiral Pratt House in Belfast some 40 years ago; Dow has had its offshoots for 15 years.
Many of the hostas that Dow grows are for sale. If Open Garden visitors want to buy any, he will mark them as sold and ask that buyers return on another day to complete the purchase, especially because many will need to be dug and potted first. “If you agree to to be on this tour, I think it’s important to be on site as a host. . .to be available to answer questions and point out interesting things about the plants. I can’t do that and sell plants at the same time. But don’t get me wrong -- I’m happy to sell plants!”
The Belfast Hosta Gallery is located at 194 Back Belmont Road in Belfast. Take Route 52 out of Belfast and bear right onto Back Belmont Road at the Belfast Variety/Irving station. After crossing Jesse Robbins Road, the garden is .5 mile on the left.
This is the fourth of eight Open Gardens, all of which are on Fridays, rain or shine. The next is Andrea Whyte’s beautifully landscaped Belfast garden, complete with a custom-built waterfall and fire pit that overlooks the Front Street Shipyard.
All Open Gardens can be visited by purchasing a $25 season pass with 8 garden admissions (available at The Good Table or Brambles on Main St. in Belfast, or at Scallions in Reny’s Plaza, or at Aubuchon Hardware on Rte. 1) or individually by making a $4 donation at each garden. For a complete schedule, visit belfastgardenclub.org or pick up a brochure at numerous retail businesses in and around Belfast. For more information about Open Gardens, call Martha Laitin (948-2815) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.