The plant world is sad today. A queen has died. Mildred Seaver, known as the "Queen of Hostas," passed away March 7 in Delaware at age 98.
You probably don't recognize her name, but if you love hostas or ever go shopping for hostas, I'll bet you've encountered the whimsically named 'Spilt Milk' or maybe one of her hostas with "Sea" in its name ('Sea Foam,' 'Sea Fire' or 'Queen of the Seas').
She was their "originator," the term used for the people who propagate and then register a new plant; it's a lot like being a mother.
According to the American Hosta Society (AHS), there are roughly 5,000 registered Hostas, and 3,000 to 4,000 that are named but not registered. The purpose of registration is to seek consistency in the identification of cultivars, and avoid duplication of names, so you know what you are buying.
Acceptance of the cultivar by the AHS is acknowledgment that the introduction is unique (however small the characteristics might be that differentiate one cultivar from another.)
Mildred Seaver registered 69 hostas but is credited for originating many more. While her cultivars are well-known international favorites, she is known more for her personality and influence on her industry.
Mildred Seaver stories abound, among the leaders of U.S. and British hosta folk. She was so respected and loved that she became the only living human being ever to be featured on the cover of the Hosta Journal. According to all "hostaphiles," it's exactly where she belonged.
And for those of you who think, "So what?," a bit of context: Hostas are big business. The hosta has been the most popular perennial plant in America for 15 years. The American Hosta Society has 3,000 members; the Western New York Society has hundreds -- the largest of the area's plant societies.
These are people who talk, think, shop, study and collect hostas. Rare -- and sorry, in my book -- is the garden that does not contain hostas.
For a little context, let's define terms: A cultivar is a named hybrid (a plant produced by humans) that is unquestionably different from the species. Cultivars are propagated for dissemination, and the plants that are produced are called clones. (You cannot reproduce a cultivar from its seed; the seedling would not be true to the cultivar but would revert to characteristics of its ancestors.)
Those who dabble in hybridizing hostas, whether as hobbyists or professionals, use selective breeding techniques to look for special characteristics such as fragrance, size (miniatures are in), slug resistance, flower size and color, and the texture, shape and pattern of leaves. If you have been growing grandma's old unnamed hostas, you have missed a world of possibilities. Acquire some strong new cultivars, and you'll really have a superior garden plant.
>WNY hosta people
In WNY we have our own hosta nobility:
*Ran Lydell from Dunkirk (Eagle Bay Hostas) has produced H. 'Peridot,' 'Brass Ring,' 'Striker' and 'Saybrook Surprise' and is an influential industry leader and educator.
*Mike Shadrack is currently president of the WNY Hosta Society but, more importantly, an international hosta expert and author/photographer. He co-authored "The Encyclopedia of Hostas" and photographed the 2010 "Book of Little Hostas" written by his wife Kathy.
*Mike and Kathy, now residing in Boston, N.Y., will be making several speaking appearances in WNY this season, and many more across the U.S. and England.
And if you want to experience a wonderful hosta garden with hundreds of cultivars -- with anecdotes to go with them -- find your way to Jerry Murray's hostas on Transit Road near Jewett Holmwood Road in Orchard Park (just south of Murray Brothers Nursery.) You'll stroll, you'll shop, you'll learn and you'll likely get hooked on hostas. (His registered hosta is named 'Whirlpool.')
When I asked the WNY hosta folk about Mildred Seaver, I got a mailbox full. Mike Shadrack wrote: "Mildred, what a lady -- the Queen of Hostas -- a totally lovable lady. She was old and looked it. Frail and not too mobile. But her voice remained loud and screeching. Her brain as sharp as a new pin."
But as Mike went on, the personal Mildred stories quickly returned to her impressive hosta introductions. Mike described 'Queen of the Seas' as "a wonderful, large, blue-green hosta with very heavy pie-crust edges" and 'Spilt Milk' as "a large green hosta that looks exactly as if someone had drizzled milk all over it."
Carolyn Shaffner, former president of the WNY Hosta Society, shared the experience of visiting her: "A visit to Mildred's house and garden was a pilgrimage for hosta folks. Everyone tried to visit her. She loved to tell stories of getting started with hosta. She only had $9 and couldn't afford a plant, so she bought seeds from someone and the whole process started!
"If she wanted a hosta, she'd just call up the hybridizer and ask for it. I think that's how she got Ran Lydell's 'OH MY HEART' -- a very unusual hosta with fasciated (grown together) scapes which produces a [prolific] bloom stalk something similar to a hyacinth. Ran probably personally delivered his plant."
Mildred Seaver was also at least partially responsible for the reputation of hostas as "The Friendship Plant." If she liked someone, she'd offer a hosta.
She was described in an obituary as a lover of nature, cats, butterflies, moths and art -- as well as plants and people. Her garden wasn't weeded, according to more than one friend, and she kept no grass. Overgrown paths among the hostas and daylilies were littered with romaine leaves that she used to catch slugs. But she certainly knew how to grow hostas, and used enormous amounts (even several feet) of compost. I know I would have liked her.
As I write this story, I've been impressed by this lady's achievements as a hobbyist who simply followed her passion and created her name. She was awarded the American Hosta Society's two highest awards, the Alex J. Summers Distinguished Service Award and the Eunice Fisher Distinguished Hybridizer Merit Award.
But leaders of the plant world comment on her personal traits as much as her achievements. She will be long remembered for her irrepressible personality, her flamboyant and exuberant moments of laughter and joy, and her generosity -- traits worth of the title, "Queen of Hostas."
As my friend Carolyn put it: "The world needs more Mildred Seavers."
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and columnist.