Hosta Hybridizing Part 2: Starting Your Seed
The early winter holiday season is over. I have already noticed that the sun is coming up earlier and setting later. I know that my winter lethargy will soon be set aside for later winter “clean ups” prior to my extensive daffodil collection blooming. Even with some below 0 degree weather recently, my hellebores are showing bloom trying to come up. I still haven’t quite rotated through my DVD movie collection and know I will have to be busy all too soon.
I have found that the easiest way to ease back into the garden season is to plant my hosta seed. These are always the first seed I start for the new growing season. I have tried to start them around Thanksgiving in the past. Starting the seed in November let me bridge one season with the next. The problem was that Thanksgiving and then Christmas brought some irregularities with the care of the young seedlings. I lost some to fungus gnats. I wasn’t around when a bit of a fungus put in an appearance. Some just suffered from over watering or under watering while I was out of town. I learned to be patient. I wait until after New Years before thinking about starting my hosta seed.
A Bit of History
The seed is the result of your time spent walking through wet grass a couple months this past summer. That is of course if you performed a controlled cross where you introduced known pollen to a known cultivar as a pod parent. There are some that just let the “bees” do it. Open pollinated seed is still an honorable means of hybridizing. Sure, half of the genetic understanding isn’t known. But, half is better than none. That is where we start today.
My most recent hosta introduction was a hosta I named Boy Shooting Arrows. This hosta is (stable Beatrice x Katrina Jo) x Mikawa ‘No Yuki’. One of the unfortunate problems I have had in the past, where Mikawa ‘No Yuki’ was a parent, was that the seedlings were sterile. I could not get a pod to set on any of these seedlings no matter whether they were used as a pollen parent or a pod parent. I had come to the conclusion that using Mikawa ‘No Yuki’ as a parent only produced sterile children.
Then along came Boy Shooting Arrows. Even this plant, until this past summer, did not produce pods except occasionally. Perhaps it was the really cool wet season we were fortunate enough to have that made a difference. When late summer rolled around I realized I had 6 scapes on my mother plant that were half full of large plump pods. This was too good an opportunity to let the seed just blow away in the wind. I have enough seed that I am hoping to get at least a couple of seedlings. Since there was so much trouble in the past setting pods on seedlings out of Mikawa ‘No Yuki’ I have little hope that the seed I collected this fall will be viable.
Preparing Your Seed for Planting
Typically one can tell if seed is viable by the color. You will notice in the image that accompanies this hub that they are very black. The seed end is plump with seed that appears to have matured. Normally if a seed appears to be mostly or all white it is not viable. That is why I am trying to sprout this seed. This seed is very black and the seed end is plump. If the seed end appears flat with little substance then the seed will probably not be viable.
Now, the best way to start hosta seed is really easy. The seed does not require any special treatment before planting. It doesn’t need a cold period to trick it into thinking it has gone through winter. The seed doesn’t need to be scraped to allow water to reach the germ through the protective coating. All you need to do is to remove the seed from the dried pods and plant them. Use a high quality sterile potting media. Just barely cover the seeds with maybe 1 / 4 inch of soil at the most. Then sit back and wait for them to sprout as patiently as possible.
I have found the easiest way to get the seed from the pod is to put the pods, whether they are still attached to the scape or not, in a new, clean paper bag and vigorously shake. Most of the seed comes off the pod with ease this way. Sometimes with stubborn seed or with just a small number of pods I will use a round toothpick. Gently draw the toothpick along the grove that naturally occurs in the pod where the seed attaches to it. Be careful, the pods can be sharp and unyielding. You can hurt your fingers if not careful.
Normally I gently blow and screen the roughage that accompanies other types of seed. This is hard to do with hosta. The “wings” are designed to easily move the seed with the slightest wind and then to break away when they land somewhere. Using a paper bag to quickly remove seed from the dried pods causes a great deal of damage to the wings. You may try to pick through your collected black specks carefully.
Choosing the Seed for Planting
Choose only the thicker seed. Use something delicate to scoot the seed you want to save to one side. Choosing too much of the wing part in a container can contribute to fungus which can impact seed germination. I have found that good air movement drying out the surface will usually cure the problem. Young seedlings are especially vulnerable to chemical treatments. Now, if you have waited until the entire surface of your growing container is WHITE with fungus then you waited too long. The fungus, which was just trying to feed off of the wing parts, will also damage the seed if let to continue too long. I have been successful not picking out the seed from the broken “wings” as long as I scatter the seed with the broken “wings” in my growing container sparingly.
Air movement drying of the soil surface is also a good way to discourage fungus gnats. These little devils feed on organic matter on moist soil surfaces. The larva does not live too far down; less than ½ inch. They can do considerable damage to newly sprouted hosta seedlings. Let the soil surface dry out to control reproductive activity. Watering seedlings from the bottom when possible is always a good strategy.
Light and Heat Concerns
I have used heat mats in the past to regulate and raise soil temperature. I have found that most mats heat the small containers too much. The soil dries out too quickly. The temperature is too high. If you choose to use a heat mat, then get a thermostat to control the temperature to a lower setting. 70 degrees should be a maximum heat setting. Usually normal room temperature is fine. I keep my house at 66 in the winter. It takes my seed about 3 weeks to sprout which is not much slower than a heat mat. I have a spot where I can position the tray holding the container about 3 feet above the heat vent. I do this more for superstition than need. The moving air does allow the soil surface to dry out better.
A good bright south window should provide enough light for young seedlings. Many recommend using a 24 - 7 fluorescent light close above the seedling encourages better growth. It does and will give much better growth! You will have huge seedlings using a fluorescent or LED light. High pressure intensity lights or even incandescent create too much extra heat. These lights are over kill. Seedlings are damaged by those lights. The best light is a T5 grow light used by many hydroponic growers. These use less energy but deliver better light. I have seen hosta seedling grown in a proper hydroponic system become as large as 3 year old plants in just 6 months.
Start feeding with a mild fertilizer when the seedlings are a few weeks old. Growing seedlings in small containers with plenty of organic rich water the first season often encourages faster maturation. Still a hosta from seed will usually take 6 – 10 years to fully mature. It is fun to watch the development. Like children or pets, these seedlings will go through stages. There are times they look good as seedlings. There are times they go through rapid growth and look rather awkward as adolescents. It is a rewarding enterprise I know few dislike.
These little seedlings provide the spark for a new season. I find myself spending hours every week just looking at them, evaluating, taking notes. They don’t change all that much. I have on many occasions identified future seedlings destined to be registered. I frequently choose the name I want to register the seedling when it matures while still a seedling. There is nothing more encouraging than studying these young green shoots while a February snowstorm is blowing.