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Hosta Hybridizing Part 1: One Final Seed Harvest

Updated on November 5, 2014
Hosta "Boy Shooting Arrows" (Nyikos 2012). Image of mother plant I registered.  It is a great blue.
Hosta "Boy Shooting Arrows" (Nyikos 2012). Image of mother plant I registered. It is a great blue. | Source

I hope to post quite a number of hubs on plant hybridizing next season. Plant breeding is one of my specialties. There are many plants which are quite easy to cross pollinate. Hostas are one of these. There is a 60 day minimum seed maturing window that didn’t allow me to begin talking about this exciting aspect of gardening. This means that a flower pollinated on May 30 needs until at least July 30 before it can be collected. Hostas are a bit different in that I would never consider collecting seed on July 30. I wait until the fall when the pods or seed vessels turn brown and begin to split open.

Let’s begin the process at this point where I want to encourage you to harvest the last seed from your 2014 garden. Now is the time when pods are turning brown and splitting open. Look for pods that have a tan color as well as the scape. If there is still a bit of green but most is tan I would say to cut them. I plant my seed sometime in November (if I have my act together). I will cover this in the next addition of this series. It is the seed that we need to gather first.

Here is a clump of Boy Shooting Arrows blooming and setting pods the beginning of September.
Here is a clump of Boy Shooting Arrows blooming and setting pods the beginning of September. | Source
This hosta that froze has seed that will still spout.
This hosta that froze has seed that will still spout. | Source

Which Hosta Should You Gather Seed From?

I am starting with seed collection because it is extremely important to understand the drying, sowing, germination and small plant growth before attempting with better seed. Mistakes and problems are quite possible the first time you try this. This winter will be a practice session.

I should forewarn you that the chances for a beautiful hosta are slim. I don’t have figures from the hosta society but I have heard from the daylily people that they consider it a 1 in 1000 seedlings that should be kept. I’m not sure how accurate this is. I do know from my own work that the chances are really low to get a seedling worthy of a name. Yet, I still have the very first hosta seedling I ever grew. No one has ever commented on it in my garden. I love it to pieces. I’ve even given it a name though not a registered one.

There are no foolproof rules to how a seedling will look from chosen parents. There are some generalities. Those large, blue, thick leaved, crinkled hosta tend to beget either slightly blue or yellow seedlings with the same thick texture. Sometimes these have a smooth leaf and sometimes they are corrugated.

If you happen to have a “streaked” hosta you stand a better chance that the seedling will be variegated. A streaked hosta is one where the variegation is not on the edge or in the center. The variegation is scattered throughout the leaf in no particular pattern. Most people with the hosta breeding bug begin to seek these out as their pod producers for this reason. Regular edged or centered variegated plants often don’t produce two toned seedlings. I have had some come off of an old cultivar called Frances Williams. As a general rule the mom has to have irregular variegation. All other hostas give solid colored seedlings.

The large white flowered hostas that smell usually have seedlings with the same fragrant white flowers. These are known as nocturnal blooming. This means that the flowers open several hours later than diurnal blooming. The diurnals open at dawn. If you are fortunate to have some seed pods on one of these you should consider starting some of these hosta. There is a special way for hybridizing these. For now you should have some pods that have set naturally.

Don’t let frost and freezes discourage you. The cold will not harm your seed. Go out and collect seed off of your favorite hosta before they scatter. Cut the whole scape. Assuming you will enjoy doing this in the future I want to encourage you to keep all the collected seed from the same plant together. Go ahead and put a name of the pod producing hosta with the drying scapes. I’m not saying you don’t have a good memory. It’s just that, well, you won’t remember unless you write it down.

Bring your collected scapes with their pods inside and let them dry. As they dry the pods will split open. This is a natural process. In nature the seeds have a thin nearly transparent “wing” to catch the wind. The seed can travel quite a distance from the mother plant. While hosta seeds are able to sprout with no special preparation I have found that it is easier to clean the seed when the pods have split open and dried.

Most seed requires some special treatment like a cold storage period or scraping the seed shell. Some need to have special chemical treatments, usually acquired from the digestive process of a feeding animal, to activate germination. Hostas don’t need anything. Cold won’t hurt them nor will it increase the germination percent. Any time after the pods have split open is a good time to clean them and prepare for planting. It usually takes just a few weeks for this to happen.

Notice the jet black seeds on the open pod.  These are viable.
Notice the jet black seeds on the open pod. These are viable. | Source

Cleaning and Drying Your Seed

There are two ways to clean the seed from the pods. If you have plenty of seed pods you can simply cut the scapes into small pieces say a couple of inches long. Place everything in a brown paper bag. Close the top securely and shake. This is enough to jostle the seed from the pod. You will have sufficient seed in the bottom of the bag for your needs. The second way should be used for those situations where you only have a few pods. The technique is to use a round toothpick. Gently use the tip to run along the groove that naturally occurs on the inside of the pod. The toothpick will travel along the groove releasing the seed. This is sort of tedious. I don’t use this method if I have plenty of seed pods.

White seeds are not viable. Neither are the mottled or medium dark seed. Only the really dark black seed is viable. There are times when pods are full of white seed. Those smelly large white flowered ones often produce unfertilized seed. There is a way to ensure seed with good germination on these plants I will share next summer. They tend to bloom in August. Look for a hub then. You can still find fertile seed in some naturally pollinated pods. Go ahead and clean the pods. Then pick through the seed and keep only the really dark ones.

That’s it for now. My seed has not yet dried to be cleaned. I hope to have them ready in a couple of weeks. I need a new T5 fluorescent grow light for the new seedlings. Until then, go out and collect scapes off of your most loved hosta. This will let you know what the chosen plant is probably going to pass on with controlled crosses should you desire to learn this craft. It isn’t necessary to produce seed from controlled crosses. The late great Queen of Hosta, Mildred Seaver, was not a hybridizer though she had numerous beautiful hostas to her credit. What she had instead was a very good eye. She could find chance seedlings while still quite small that would grow into unique beauties.

That is why you need to begin now with planting some seed. Planting hosta seed in the winter helped lessen the dreary no gardening time for many years. I spent hours just looking at the little guys. Many I would one day name actually had a name given to them from looking at them as babies. You have time until the next installment when we will plant the seed.

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