The first time I saw a plantain lily (Hosta plantaginea), I thought someone was playing a prank, that they had stuck stems of fragrant lilies among a hosta plant’s foliage. I never would have believed that a hosta could have flowers so big and so fragrant! The pure white trumpets measure 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) in length and their intense orange-blossom scent will seduce you from quite a distance. And it’s the only species of hosta with fragrant flowers. All scented hosta cultivars (and there are now quite a few of them) are either mutations of the H. plantaginea or hybrids with it as at least a distant parent.
H. plantaginea forms a dome of shiny, medium green, shiny, deeply grooved leaves about 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter on a plant some 18 inches (45 cm) high. The flower stalk is about 30 inches (75 cm) high. It is the latest blooming hosta, starting in August in most regions or even in early September, and the flowers last nearly a month. In many areas, its late-blooming habit has given it the nickname August lily (note the word lily: I’m obviously not the only person to see the resemblance!). Flowers open late in the day as well, at the end of the afternoon, then stay open all night. It is definitely worthwhile placing this hosta in spot you frequent in the evening!
H. plantaginea is the most southernly species of hosta, found in mild climates in China, and although very hardy (USDA zone 3, AgCan zone 4), it has certain habits that are different from the typical hosta most gardeners know.
The most obvious difference is that it produces new leaves in flushes throughout the summer, not only all at once in the spring like other hostas. That means any damaged or tired leaves are eventually covered up by fresh new ones.
Also, it sprouts earlier in the spring than other hostas, which can put at at risk of frost damage in areas where the snow melts quickly. If you cover its root area with good thick mulch about 3 to 4 inches (7-10 cm) thick, that will keep the ground cooler in the spring, thus slowing its growth and keeping it safer from frost. But if it does get frosted… well, at least it will soon produce fresh leaves to hide the damage, unlike other hostas whose frost-damaged leaves remain visible all summer.
Finally, unlike other hostas, the plantain lily prefers full sun or only part shade, although it will tolerate full shade.
Otherwise, H. plantaginea is a classic hosta that will tolerate almost any kind of soil as long as it is well-drained. Like most hostas, it will do best in rich, cool, somewhat moist soil. Do think to water it during periods of drought, especially while it is in bloom.
It is best multiplied by division in spring or fall. It rarely produces fertile seed in cooler climates, but where it does, you can grow new plants from seed as well.
Although H. plantataginea rarely suffers from that bane of hosta growers, slugs, deer love it, more than other hostas in fact! If you have deer, this is not the hosta for you.
A Cultivar to Avoid
Most cultivars and hybrids of H. plantaginea are good garden plants and many in fact are very popular. That includes ‘Fragrant Bouquet’, ‘Guacamole’, ‘Invincible’, etc. One cultivar I don’t recommend however is H. plantaginea ‘Aphrodite’. This is a double-flowered mutation of the species with flowers just as big and as fragrant, so it would seem like an excellent choice on paper. Unfortunately, the extra weight of the double flowers means they tend hang down so you can barely even see they are double. Worse yet, often the entire flower stalk simply flops, especially if it rains. This is a rare example of a plant where the species is more interesting to gardeners than its selection.
Where to Find It
This is one hosta more often found in people’s gardens than in garden centers, so if you don’t have it, trying begging a friend or neighbor for a slip! If you can’t find a free division, you ought to be able to find it in a larger nursery. If not, it is readily available by mail order.
The plantain lily: much more than just a hosta!