History of
the hosta


Hosta prehistory

Usually when the history of hosta is written down, the starting point is the first westerner who came in contact with hostas, Englebert Kaempfer.

This seems just a tat presumptuous to me.

In my humble opinion the history of hostas starts with the beginning of the first species, most probably somewhere on the Chinese mainland, near the East Coast.  The most primitive hosta species can still be found there.

That first species spread to the north and the south.  In order to survive the climatologic conditions of these new habitats, they had to evolve.  Evolution took care of the rest, and over a period of thousands of years, all the hosta species were born.  Finally, the northern and southern branch met again, completing the circle.  Hosta had spread along the east coast of China, Korea, even a little bit of Russia and, mainly all over Japan.

The inhabitants of the Far East of course came in contact with hostas a long time before any westerner. Hosta history can be traced back as much as 800 years ago.
Most probably interest in hostas was very limited, as is often the case with indigenous plants.  Some species and natural varieties however have al long history as garden plants.  The first variegated hostas were found in the wild and introduced as garden plants.  In Japanese, Chinese and Korean gardens, the first cultivars were born.
There even must have been some import - export.  How else can it b be that a H. plantaginea cultivar, a plant with Chinese roots, was found in Japan ?  (H. plantaginea 'Japonica').
This caused a lot of problems later on, when westerners started describing hostas: everything they could lay their hands on was considered a species, even natural and cultural varieties or hybrids.  This has been the cause of many taxonomic errors, some of which still haven't been set straight. 
Hostas were (are ?) even used as vegetables, especially the young shoots and as food for life stock.

The doctors of Deshima

In 1837, after an uprising of Japanese Catholics, stirred up by Portuguese Jesuits,  the shogun, who ruled Japan during this era from his capital Edo (now Tokyo), started a policy of strict isolationism. 
All citizens of Catholic nations in particular, were ordered to leave Japan.
The protestant Dutch traders from the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (V.O.C. = United East Indian Company) were the only ones, beside Chinese traders, that were allowed to stay on, under very rigorous conditions.  The Japanese mainland was off limits, so in 1838 they were banned to a tiny artificial island (120 x 75 m) in the Bay of Nagasaki, Deshima.
It had been build especially for the purpose of housing foreign traders in 1634. This trade post was more like a state prison for the 20 Dutch inhabitants: under no circumstance were they allowed on the mainland, the only way out or in was a wooden bridge, guarded by sentries, and on the island an army of "interpreters" kept them under constant surveillance.  There was, however, one important exception: once every year a Dutch delegation was invited by the Shogun to visit him in Edo, a voyage that took about 3 months. 
Despite the fact no other nationalities than the Dutch were allowed in, an significant number of German men of science lived on the island over the years.  When the Japanese noticed they didn't speak Dutch, they were told the doctors were "mountain Dutch", with their own dialect.  The Japanese accepted this explanation.


A Japanese painting of Nagasaki Bay.  In the center are two V.O.C. ships.  The fan shaped island to the right is Deshima.


Dr. Englebert Kaempfer (1651 - 1715) was the doctor on Deshima, from 1690 to 1692.  He wasn't just a physician, but, like most men of science in those days, he had many skills: he was doctor in languages and history, he drew maps and was the biologist and ethnologist of the island. 
He was one of the first westerners ever to see a hosta and he was with certainty the first one to ever draw and describe one.  Linnaeus hadn't introduced his system of binominal plant names yet, and plant names could be rather awkward and descriptive, like
Joksan, vulgo gibbooschi Gladiolus plantagenis folio (the common hosta with plantain-like leaves) ; if you know what the narrow leaved plantain looks like, you'll agree this a pretty accurate description of  H. lancifolia.
Poetic as this first name was, as uninspired Kaempfer must have been when he named another hosta Gibbooschi altera (the other hosta).  I don't know which one this is.  If you do, please let me know.


Carl Thunberg (1743 - 1828) was a Swedish doctor and biologist, one of Linneaus' students.
In 1771  he studied plants, sent to the Netherlands by Kaempfer, in the "Hortus Botanicus" or Botanical Garden in Leiden, NL. 

Like his illustrious predecessor, he went into service of the V.O.C. as a physician and scientist.  To be able to visit Japan he even learned Dutch. From 1775 until 1776 he stayed on Deshima.  He continued the study of Japanese flora and gave the plants Kaempfer described new, binominal names, according to the Linnean conventions.
The hostas were described as species belonging to the genus Hemerocallis.

A description of Hemerocallis japonica
from Flora Japonica by Thunberg

Click to enlarge.

The hosta reaches the Western world

The first hosta that was grown in the Western world was H. plantaginea.  It may seem a little odd that the first species to arrive in Europe was of Chinese origin, while most hostas are found in Japan, but there is a simple historical explanation for this: the Japanese policy of isolationism.

By contrast, all along on the Chinese shoreline trade posts were founded.  The oldest one, Macao, was founded by the Portuguese in the  16th century.  The French Consul in Macao, Charles de Guigues, sent the first hosta seeds to France, where they arrived in 1784.  In the "Jardin des Plantes" in Paris, the H. plantaginea seeds germinated, the seedlings prospered, and it wasn't long before this hosta became become a fashion plant, not really as a landscaping plant, but more as a collectors item for the many wealthy collectors of the new "exotic" plants that arrived in Europe from all over the world, discovered by botanists and plant hunters.  In 1788 the plant was scientifically described, based on a mature plant in the Jardin des Plantes, by Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck as Hemerocallis plantaginea in his "Flore Française".

Soon afterwards, in 1790, a second species, H. ventricosa, came to London from China. It was first described as Bryocles ventricosa in 1812.

It didn't take long, about 1800, before the first hostas appeared in America.

In 1812, all known species were grouped in the genus Hosta by Austrian botanic Leopold Trattinnick (1761-1848), named in honor of his fellow countryman Nicholas Thomas Host (1761-1834), also a botanic and physician at the court of Emperor Frances I of Austria.

Deshima revisited - doctor von Siebold

It would last almost another 30 years, until 1829, before the first large shipment of hostas from Japan would reach the West.
This was the merit of doctor Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866).  Like his predecessors before him, he was much more than just a physician: naturalist, cartographer, ethnologist, all-round  scientist.

As a student, he read the works of Alexander von Humboldt, famous scientist and explorer, on his adventurous scientific travels.  This fascinated von Siebold, and as a young  doctor he signed up with the Dutch army to be able to travel the world.  His superiors quickly realized they had enlisted someone with exceptional scientific skills and sent hem him, like Kaempfer and Thunberg before him, to Japan.
In 1823 von Siebold arrived on Deshima, where he introduced Japanese scientists to Western medicine. 

To be continued