African hosta (Ledebouria petiolate) is a native of Southern and Eastern Africa that performs very well in the Victoria area. Also known as “false” hosta, it is not a hosta at all but shares many of the beautiful characteristics of a true hosta. This is welcome news for local gardeners who find our high heat and humidity often kill true hostas.
Description of African hosta
Like true hostas, African hosta is a low-growing rosette of oblong leaves that arise directly from underground bulbs.
The fleshy leaves are 4 to 6 inches long and are dotted with dark green to purple ink-like spots. The spots tend to be darker in the spring and often fade by summer’s end. The entire plant rarely gets taller than 6 inches.
Flowers of African hosta can appear throughout spring and early summer. The white, bell-shaped flowers grow in dense clusters at the end of a stalk held several inches above the foliage. They resemble a white grape hyacinth (Muscari).
Although the foliage is the real showstopper, the blooms of a closely planted clump of African hosta are beautiful in their own right. When tightly bunched, they give the African hosta another common name Little White Soldiers.
Shade vs. sun
Online sources for African hosta point out that it can be grown in almost any light, while acknowledging that it might need more water in full sun. My experience growing this plant, though, is that it performs much better in the shade. The leaves are larger and darker green and the beautiful spots are more pronounced.
I purchased my first African hosta at a church garden sale many years ago and planted it under the dense shade of a pine tree. It lived happily there in the shade and slowly multiplied. I divided the clumps every year or two, usually in the spring, and planted several bulbs in different flower pots.
Hurricane Harvey destroyed the pine tree and exposed the bed beneath it to the harsh South Texas sun. I dug up the bulbs and replanted them in flower pots. The next spring, I was amazed to see little rosettes of African hosta emerging in the newly exposed bed. It seems I had missed some bulbs. Because they grow more slowly in the sun, I transplant them into the shade whenever I see a new plant emerging.
Fertilizer, water, temperature
African hosta requires little more than a light application of a balanced fertilizer in early spring. In fact, it survives well with no additional fertilizer. It tolerates almost any soil type as long as it drains moderately well.
Although African hosta grows best in moderate moisture, it is tolerant of short periods of soggy ground. As it matures, it can even do well in times of drought with light supplemental watering.
The African hosta thrives in our part of Texas because it performs well in extreme heat. It will usually remain evergreen unless the temperature drops well below freezing. Even then, the bulbs remain and will resprout in the spring. It is certainly another choice for those looking for options that will grow in various light conditions but probably more successful in shade and in areas where other things just won’t grow.
Propagation is by clump division. Because the bulbs multiply slowly, division will usually not be necessary for several years. Nevertheless, if you are like me, you will want to spread this plant around. Do not be afraid to divide it every spring if you wish. Separate the bulbs or individual plants and replant them three to four inches apart to create a small pocket of groundcover.
How to use African hosta
The waxy, spotted foliage makes African hosta an interesting choice for containers on covered porches. The lack of direct sunlight will not bother it.
To make an attractive pot, place the plants only a couple of inches apart to create a mound of showy foliage. If you prefer a mixed container, remember to plant it with other shade-loving plants that do well in containers, such as oxalis, begonias and impatiens.
In flower beds, African hosta can make an excellent ground cover if planted in sufficient quantity and fairly close together. Because the plants are difficult to find, consider planting as a small pocket among rocks or in combination beneath the shade of other, larger plants. They do well with elephant ears, leopard plant, bear’s breeches and all sorts of gingers.
Whether in a container or planted in a bed, remember to place the African hosta in a shady location for best results.