Category Archives: Wild Edibles

Hostas: Queens of the Shade Realm

By Roger Klinger

As I write this, it is a windy 18 degrees, and earlier this morning a light snow was falling, whereas yesterday it was 65 degrees and sunny! One can smell and taste the essence of spring as it begins to descend; the natural world is always changing and this spring is no exception. Our first daffodils opened up on January 26, a record for us, and although our winter has been much warmer on the whole, wild fluctuations seem to be the new norm as our climate shifts and changes. But spring is in the air and the weeds are coming up everywhere; it is the changing of the seasonal guard as we shift from winter’s starkness into the emerging springtide of blossoms and delights.

Wild mustards and chickweeds are abundant, as are the unstoppable wild onions. Soon the earth will begin to open up more fully and we will be greeted with the amazing regeneration of nature’s bounty. From a distance, I thought I saw hostas popping up in the leaf mulch and was worried, because each year when we get protracted early warm spells, many plants emerge and some like hosta open their leaves too soon, only to get burned by a harsh cold night. Fortunately, it was yet another batch of daffodils, but I’m keeping a close eye as it won’t be long until the hundreds of hostas we have planted in our landscape emerge.

For decades I’ve loved hostas and called them the Queens of the Shade Realms since they’re so diverse in their forms and beauty, and so forgiving, hardy and adaptable in the landscape. In Virginia, I once found a huge clump I had dug in the fall two years prior and had left above ground, hidden behind a massive rhododendron; even after two hot summers and two seasons of cold, snow and ice, it was full of leaf and flower. We grow about 20 varieties of hostas and I am always dividing and spreading them around or donating them to friends. I love the leaves and the summer flowers, as do the hummingbirds we so adore.

All the years I had grown hostas, I never knew they were edible, not to mention delicious, until recently I discovered they have been prized and cultivated for centuries as a food source in Japan and China.

The young shoots, leaves and flowers are all edible, and can be eaten either raw or cooked. In Japan, edible hostas are referred to as “urui;” traditional ways of serving them range from steamed or boiled to fried in tempura or eaten raw. With a flavor that reminds me of lettuce and asparagus, they can easily be substituted in salads. Hostas belong to the family Asparagaceae, known for other famous relatives such as agave, yucca and of course, asparagus.

To harvest, select shoots that are young and tender, as older leaves are bitter and tough. It’s best to do this in the morning when the plant is most succulent. Leaves can be sautéed, added to stir fry, or used as a substitute for lettuce wraps. Hosta flowers are not only beautiful and abundant but also edible and these can be used as colorful garnishes or nibbles. While they are safe for human consumption, hostas are toxic to horses, cats and dogs.

It is possible to harvest the whole first flush of leaves of an established hosta without killing the plant; ornamental hosta growers will sometimes “mow” their plants to get a second flush of fresh leaves; we’ve done this many times after early hard frosts burned the first flush of foliage. Flower buds are also edible. The Montreal Botanical Garden lists all species as edible; however, I have some concern about the word “all” given the vast numbers of cultivars. So, as with all new, try a small piece first to ensure there is no allergy.

Young hosta leaves can have a slight bitterness, so they pair well with a light sesame oil sauté with soy sauce. They are also terrific in stir fries. The chunkier hosta leaves are better boiled briefly and used as a vegetable.

Hostas are an ideal permaculture forest crop given their preference for shade and their ease of growing and propagating. Woodland habitats rich in organic matter such as leaf mold are ideal, and they like moisture — which may be one of the reasons slugs seem to like them so much! I have seen some references indicating they are good to plant under apple trees, as each plant secretes chemicals that helps the other thrive.

In Japan, hostas are prized as sansai or “mountain vegetables,” a class of plants that are usually gathered wild from the mountain and is considered to be particularly strong in vitality. I haven’t found any studies about their nutritional value but suspect that given their vitality and vigor, it is likely that they are not only tasty but loaded with minerals, vitamins and certainly fiber.

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