Eating hostas

One of my favourite seasonal treats from the forest garden is the hostas. No, no spelling mistake: hostas are really edible. In fact, they are a near perfect forest garden crop. Woodland is the natural habitat of many hosta species, so they like moist soil with plenty of organic matter and tolerate a considerable amount of shade. A friend tells me that they have a positive allelopathic relationship (i.e. they secrete chemicals that help each other) with apples, and since the research on it is published in Russian I’ll have to take her word for it. Hostas are no novelty nibble: they have the potential to be a major productive vegetable.

hosta clump

The best part of the hosta is the ‘hoston’, the rolled up leaf as it emerges in the spring, although many varieties are still pretty good even once they have unfurled. The best way of cooking them depends on the size of the hostons. Small ones are delicious if you fry them for a few minutes, then add a little light soy sauce and sesame oil. The slight bitterness of the hostons complements the saltiness of the soy sauce very well. Similarly, they go very well in stir fries. The chunkier hostons are better boiled briefly and used as a vegetable. In the picture below, the hostons on the right are bound for frying, those on the left are for boiling.

hostons

Hostons are best cropped by gripping them firmly near the base and snapping ones off the edge of the clump. If you can snap them off right at the base they will hold together as a whole instead of falling apart into individual leaves. The short leaf scales around the base are bitterer than the larger leaves so they are worth removing. It is much easier to harvest the hostons if the crown of the plant is a little above ground level when it is planted. It is possible to harvest the whole first flush of leaves of an established plant without killing it: ornamental hosta growers will sometimes ‘mow’ their plants to get a second flush of fresh, attractive leaves.

Later on, the open leaves can be used as a general pot herb or substituted for spinach in recipes like ‘hostakopita’. The flowers and flower buds are also edible: the Montreal Botanical Garden lists all species as edible and Hosta fortunei as the tastiest.

It seems to be an open question whether every single species of hosta is edible and therefore whether it is a good idea to try any unidentified hosta that you may happen across. The species I have eaten regularly myself are H. sieboldiana, montana and longipes. Martin Crawford lists H. crispula, longipes, montana, plantaginea, sieboldii, sieboldiana, undulata and ventricosa. Plants for a Future add H. clausa, clavata, longissima, nigrescens, rectifolia and tardiva and list no known hazards for the genus as a whole. This covers all the common ornamental species except H minor, which probably isn’t worth it anyway, and H fortunei, which must be edible since the most popular variety of it, ‘Sagae’ originally arose in hostas being grown for food in Sagae City in Japan. On the basis of that I’m happy to try any hosta myself, but if you’re going to do that, remember to try only a small piece first and test for a skin reaction by rubbing a piece on your skin before putting anything in your mouth.

Picture by ‘dcarch’ on the Seed Savers’ Forum

For more on eating hostas, there is a discussion and some astonishingly beautiful pictures of hosta dishes on the Seed Savers’ Forum. There was also a very useful article in Permaculture Magazine No. 58. It isn’t online unfortunately, but you can buy the back issue if you are really keen. A fellow wordpress blogger has also been writing about eating hostas here.

In Japan, hostas are prized as sansai or ‘mountain vegetables’, a class of plants that are usually gathered wild from the mountain and are considered to be particularly strong in vitality. There’s a great blog post about sansai at http://shizuokagourmet.com/sansai/.

64 thoughts on “Eating hostas

  1. Jemima

    Immediately after reading about hostas, I went down the road to an abandoned garden and picked a few shoots which I have just eaten, first I chopped the tender stems and added them to a salad, then I chopped up the rest of the leaves and stems and stir fried them and then topped a dish of vegetables and rice with them.
    Raw, they have a very nice crunchy and juicy texture, but hardly any flavour, and cooked they just blended in with the rest of the dish. However, I don’t know what kind of hosta it was, it’s just green with no marking on the leaves.. But worth a try anyway!

    Reply
    1. Alan Carter Post author

      Hi Jemima. Thanks for telling me about your experiments. Hostas mostly do have a fairly mild flavour, although it varies. I find that the trick is to use them in ways where this is a benefit, often as carriers of stronger flavours.

      Reply
      1. sa.fifer

        The deer have even come onto my deck–completely elevated, including the “bridge” access–to devour them and other things. I no longer have hostas since a tornado converted my deck from an ideal place to much sunnier environment.

        Reply
  2. mortaltree

    In Japan, the most commercial hosta is H. Montana, or so I’ve read. The best cultivar among these is ‘Snow Urui.’ (Urui is the commercial vegetable name for hosta because giboshi –or whatever they used to call it was too long.) I am trying to find a source for the ‘Snow Urui,’ but I haven’t found much.

    Reply
  3. Dawn Zakrzewski

    Wow! I have been growing & enjoying Hostas for years and never knew they were edible. Thank you for the information!!

    Reply
  4. Frank E Davidon

    Great article. I didn’t realise Hostas were edible to (non-gastropods) until I heard on a local radio gardening.programme. I’ll have to propagate some under the apple trees. Furthermore they won’t bolt.

    Reply
  5. Diane

    It’s bizarre.. I had a feeling! Last summer I almost grabbed one and started crunching away! Plants talk to me.. I can’t help it.. LOL!

    Reply
    1. Alan Carter Post author

      In parts of Australia, I’m sure. Hosta is the scientific name, which will be the same everywhere, but the common name might be different. For instance they are known as plantain lilies (despite being neither a plantain nor a lily) in some places.

      Reply
  6. RV

    I believe the caption in the picture with the leaves for frying vs boiling is wrong. Right is for boiling first, left is for frying.

    Reply
      1. Anastasia

        I thought the same as RV. If that is true, Alan, then your description in the article is contradictory (“…The best part of the hosta is the ‘hoston’, the rolled up leaf as it emerges in the spring, although many varieties are still pretty good even once they have unfurled…”). In the two photos, the ones on the left are still rolled, and the ones on the right are unfurled.

        Reply
        1. Alan Carter Post author

          I don’t follow. That would only be true if the best parts had to be stir fried rather than boiled. The issue is the thickness. Stir frying is a fast cooking technique so vegetables need to be cut into thin strips or be thin in the first place. Otherwise the middle part remains uncooked.

          Reply
  7. Judy

    Wow!! Never new this!! Been a gardener for at least 50 yrs.. going to be trying this. Thank You so much for the info!!!!

    Reply
    1. Alan Carter Post author

      I usually treat them as the latter, but I’m told that it’s common practice to ‘mow’ ornamental hostas for a second flush so presumably you could do it for culinary reasons too. I must try it on a clump this year.

      Reply
    1. Meagan E Causey

      Ive been looking for an answer to that question forever, so I’m glad you responded! I’ll try harvesting my entire first crop of chutes and see what grows back!

      Reply
  8. Bette Goodson

    this is great news since I am doing edible landscaping. have hostas just coming up. can’t wait to include them in some dishes.

    Reply
    1. Jeanne K. Briscoe

      Bette, I’m interested in edible landscaping..do you have a blog going? Have attend a class at UGA Botanical Garden but would like to keep learning more from different sources. Thanks.

      Reply
  9. Steve

    Don’t know how I got this far in life without knowing that. Very excited and perfect timing to stumble on the article because they will be a merging soon. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  10. Frank Plummer

    I learned about them year before last . People laughed at me as if I were crazy . I used them in place of leaf lettuce and wilted them with bacon grease and vinagar with green onions. I really enjoy them myself, but I do love all green leaf type foods . You should really try them and decide for yourself. I have a great many plants and never knew to plant with my Apple trees. But guess what ???

    Reply
  11. Anonymous

    Awesome! I am a fan of wild edibles too! LOL…..
    Have wondered about this for a long time.
    I have already tried:
    Columbine\ Flowers
    Daylilies\ Entire Plant
    Dandelion\ Root & Leaves (Haven’t tried the flowers yet…)
    Rose\ Flowers
    Virginia Waterleaf\ Leaves
    Snow – on – the – Mountain.. (lots of names for this one)\ Leaves
    Hope to try this soon!

    Reply
    1. Alan Carter Post author

      There’s a great short story by Ray Bradbury called ‘Dandelion Wine’. My parents made lots of wines too, but I’ve never tried that one. Hosta wine? Hmmmmm… possibly not!

      Reply
    1. Alan Carter Post author

      Sadly, my friend says that the link she had to the paper no longer works. She originally found the reference in the writing of Pavel Trannua, a Russian soil scientist. Having done a fair bit of googling, hosta seems to be listed quite commonly on Russian sites as a companion for apple, but with the usual complete lack of referencing that goes with companion planting. Personally I filed the information under ‘interesting to know’ rather than ‘likely to influence my gardening practice’ – I find hostas grow quite happily under any fruit tree. Also, I don’t see Pavel Trannua as a very credible source – his own website (seemingly done by his father in law) contains a number of references to astrology and posts like ‘How to stop ageing’! Whether this reflects on the original paper I don’t know.

      Reply
      1. Greg Martin

        Thank you very much Alan, really appreciate the additional details and digging. Hopefully I’ll never need to understand astrology to create great pairings in the garden…I’d be doomed! I have room under my apple and quince trees for some clumps of lovely hostas so I’ll give them a whirl. If you do run across the secret to stop aging (other than the traditional method) please do drop us some hints 🙂

        Reply
  12. Tommy

    Hello, I enjoyed your column but having a yard full of the most fragrant Hosta I know of, I did not see it in your edible hosta list. I am referring to the Royal Standard Hosta. Since they are spreading all over my yard, they seem to grow more abundant every year, I can spare a few to experiment with. Please let me know if they are indeed edible & do the fragrant flowers carry that into the taste?
    Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Alan Carter Post author

      Hi Tommy. The hostas with English names are generally crosses between or sports of different species. There are now tens of thousands of them so it’s impossible to try or list them all, but you can often find out the parents quite easily. I’ve not tried Royal Standard but a quick google gives the result that it is a cross between Hosta plantaginea and Hosta sieboldiana, both of which I’ve tried. Of course it’s up to you whether to try eating it or not and I’d generally advise taking the same care with a cultivar you haven’t tried before as with a species. Hosta flowers can be eaten (although personally I don’t like them much) but the fragrance of the flower won’t have any effect on the flavour of the leaf bud. It’s generous of you to offer me a plant and if you’re in the UK I’d like to take you up on it.

      Reply
  13. Mona

    Gosh. I just wanted to make sure the leaves weren’t poisonous since a wanted to use them for presentation under cupcakes for a garden wedding. Now I’ll be gather them for a spring salad along with fern fiddles and violets. Thank you all.

    Reply
  14. David Nicholls

    Very nice article. According to the book “Food Plants of China”, by Shiu-ying Hu, the flower of Hosta plantaginea is a delicacy in China but needs to be briefly boiled to remove toxicity, also the root is cooked and eaten with meat in one area. It also says the leaves are “used in making pastry”, it’s not clear to me what that means. It is interesting this book does not list any other Hosta as being eaten in China, maybe the others were once eaten there but have fallen into disuse.
    “Food Plants of China” is a great book for edibles little known in the west and many not listed online.

    Reply
    1. Alan Carter Post author

      Hi David. I have Hu Shiuying’s book – or the ebook version at least. It’s an impressive piece of work and a fascinating read – if a little frustrating at times for the lack of Linnean names in most entries and sometimes cryptic references like the pastry one! I find that hosta leaves make a nice filling for pasties – perhaps it’s something like that?

      Reply

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