Garden Myths Genetics Hybridizing Perennials

Hostas: Pretty in Pink?

Hosta with photoshopped pink foliage.

Photo accompanying an online advertisement for hosta seeds. Photo: amazon.ca

Question: I have read in magazines that there are pink hostas, but I’ve only seen seeds of such hostas from a few online seed vendors. Can you tell us more about the situation?

L. Bradely

Answer: I think you’re confusing two different things. 

Yes, there are fly-by-night seed businesses apparently offering seeds of hostas with bright pink foliage, but in fact this is no such thing. It’s simply a scam. Most likely the supplier, who claims to be offering mixed hosta seed, finds their seeds sell much better by heavily doctoring the photo of an ordinary hosta, something certainly easy enough to do using Photoshop or similar software, making it look bright pink. The resulting trafficked photo certainly catches the eye. In fact, the plant in the photo looks so colorful that it would be hard not to succumb to the temptation to buy seeds. Of course, the resulting plants will likely all be plain green, although there is some possibility of different shades of green and maybe even a bit of variegation … just not pink variegation.

Composite photo showing differently coloured hostas, including photohopped brown and white and brick red ones
This photo of an ad for hosta seed mix from another seed company and also shows some pretty impossible colors. Photo: onlinebuymore.com

Sometimes suppliers of the sort simply walk away with your money and deliver nothing, but most likely they will indeed send you a pack of seeds, but of what exactly? Hostas, one would suppose, but in other similar situations, everything from weeds to salad greens have sprouted from packs of seeds from such unscrupulous suppliers. By at least sending you seeds of something, they can keep the scam running longer. After all, it will take a few years to grow a hosta to full size and color, thus confirming there really is nothing pink about it.

When too many complaints start to come in, the suppliers of this type can close up shop and start again elsewhere under a new name, then start the scam again.

Not the First Time

Such rip-offs belong to a long line of well-known seed hoaxes, like black strawberry seeds and rainbow roses from seed, both equally impossible plant varieties sold by unreliable companies. Read No Such Thing as Black Strawberries and Rainbow Rose Seed: Don’t Waste Your Money for more information.

But Red Hostas Are a Thing!

That said, there are hostas that are having a unique and fairly new coloration, but that shade is red rather than pink. Well, reddish, at least. I think that’s what you saw in magazine articles you mention, rather anything about than pink hostas, as red foliage is a hotly discussed subject in hosta circles.

Indeed, hosta hybridizers have been working for a long time to create hostas with red leaves. It is, in fact, the holy grail of hosta hybridization! 

Hosta 'Cherry Berry' with green leaves with a white center an pinkish red flower stalks.
The hosta ‘Cherry Berry’ is known for its red flower scapes that contrast beautifully with its highly variegated foliage. Photo: nhhostas.com

There are red or purple variants of so many other garden plants, from the bright red of the Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’) to the deep purple of the Diabolo ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Menlo’), for example. This kind of red coloration comes from anthocyanin, a red pigment naturally present in the tissues of many plants. And it is indeed present in hostas, typically in the flower stalk which can then appear quite reddish, such as seen in cultivars like ‘Cherry Berry’ and Red Hot Poker’.

Logically, therefore, it ought to be possible to bring out this red coloration more in any plant that possesses the right genetics simply by repeatedly crossing plants which naturally have more than the normal amount of this red pigment, then picking the reddest plants from among their descendants to cross in their turn, until you come up with one where the pigment really dominates. 

And if you can turn a grass or shrub red, why not at a hosta?

Blushing Leaves

Hands pull back large green leaves of 'Red October' hosta so the burgundy leaf petioles can be seen.
The burgundy petioles of ‘Red October’ hosta are beautifully colored, but often you have to lift the foliage to notice them. Photo: tgplpinfo.blogspot.com

By crossing hostas with a flower scape tinged red or burgundy, generation after generation, hybridizers have, for a few years now, succeeded in transferring this coloration to part of the leaf at least: the petiole (leaf stalk). Think of cultivars like ‘Almost’, ‘Cinnamon Sticks’, Designer Genes’, ‘Garnet Prince’, ‘One Man’s Treasure’ and ‘Red October’. Their petiole is conspicuously reddish or purplish.

Hosta ‘Lipstick Blonde’ has intensely red petioles. Photo: brecksbulbs.ca

And in hostas that combine yellow foliage with a red petiole, like ‘Lipstick Blonde’ and ‘Fire Island’, the red seems even more intense.

On the other hand, red petioles are not always the most visible parts of a hosta, as they are often hidden from sight (or nearly so) by the plant’s broad leaves. They’re often especially noticeable at the start of the season, when the leaves are still upright and just unfurling, but not so much in summer

Hosta ‘Purple Heart’ has heart-shaped green leaves with a spotch of deep purple at the base of the leaf.
In Hosta ‘Purple Heart’, the dark purple of the petiole does overflow somewhat onto the leaf blade. Photo: Terra Nova Nurseries

If the red could just reach the leaf blade, wouldn’t that be wonderful? Well, in some hybrids, it does … just barely. The red from the petiole overflows at least a bit onto the leaf blade in some recent hybrids, as in ‘Purple Heart’, ‘Raspberry Sundae’ or ‘Beet Salad’. So, this is definitely a start!

But it’s only since 2015 that the first hosta truly considered to have red leaves has hit the scene: ‘First Blush ’.

Hosta 'First Blush' with reddish outer larves and green veins.
The first red-leaf hosta is ‘First Blush’. No, it’s not as vibrant in as the pink hosta at the beginning of this post, but it’s a start! Photo: nhhostas.com

This cultivar, from hybridizer Bob Solberg, is considered the first hosta with red leaves. The leaves are reddish from the time they form, a sort of purplish green with green veins. As the temperature increases, they gradually turn green, although retaining a thin dark red margin. And the petiole also remains red. It’s a diffuse red (the meaning of “blush” in the plant’s cultivar name), but still, ‘First Blush’ is readily distinguished from any other hosta on the market by the purple coloration that particular mix of red and green gives. It’s very likely to be the first in a long line of hostas with red leaves and future cultivars will almost certainly be even more intensely colored.

And Pink Leaves?

So, there are red hostas already out there, but will we ever see pink ones?

Perhaps not as intensely pink as the fake pink hosta seen at the beginning of this article, but, logically, a future red hosta, one very, very rich in anthocyanin, which, furthermore, has variegated sections, i.e., sections of leaf where chlorophyll is lacking, may well bear some pink variegation.

Philodendron with dark purplish green leaves and bright pink splotches.
Philodendron ‘Pink Princess’ shows what happens when red pigmentation is present in leaf tissue lacking in chlorophyll. Something similar could happen in a red hosta.

This often occurs in other plants when the red anthocyanin coloration mixes with the cream coloration of a leaf parts lacking green chlorophyll … so again, why not hostas?

I suspect such a plant will exist one day … in fact, probably sooner than later.

To the future pink hosta!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

6 comments on “Hostas: Pretty in Pink?

  1. Have you seen the Yucca with each leaf in a different color? When I wrote about this a while back, I got pictures of the same pampas grass in a few different colors. I mean, it was the identical picture, but the flowers of each copy were colored differently. Even if I believed that pampas grass could be fluorescent purple, I would wonder why, except for the color, it looks identical to the bright orange pampas grass. Anyway, even if such weird colors were possible, most plants would not be true to type by seed.

  2. I’ve been trying to expose this scam for years ,it’s actually pretty massive, it’s chinese sellers of fake seeds ,they doctor the pictures then send you a small bag of dust or grass seed ,amazon eBay ect does nothing about it ,even the police does nothing about it because its for penny’s and you actually recieved something for your money ,but they are everywhere selling this scam ,,please share and highlight this ,it has to stop .

  3. Geddy Lee Fan

    You saved me money and HUGE disappointment. Gigantic disappointment and frustration and anger. THANK YOU for sharing your knowledge.

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