Guest Ranter Scott Beuerlein inherited 300 hostas from a divorcée many years ago. He doesn’t know the name of a single one. There’s more to life.
I have had a long and tumultuous relationship with hostas. There’s been laughter. Tears. Love. Hate. Arguments on the phone. Drunken reveries. Other stuff. It’s complicated.
It began many years ago when I knew next to nothing about ornamental horticulture. A woman at work was in the midst of a messy divorce. No kids or dogs to divvy up. Only hostas. And it got really ugly really fast over those. At some point, she and her mother snuck back to the house under the cover of darkness and dug up what they could of the collection. To spite her husband, I think, she revenge hosta’d me with a little piece of each one. These days, she would have selfied the transaction and posted to Facebook, but back in those days the act itself had to suffice. Technology has really raised the bar on humiliation.
Well, I didn’t know much about hostas, and barely cared to learn, but knowing the circumstances of the gift, I felt compelled to plant them. Which I eventually did. Four or five days later. After they rolled around the back of my pickup in a brown paper grocery bag in the summer heat. And wouldn’t you know it, but every one of the damned things lived and grew beautifully. I was hooked!
Actually, I wasn’t. I mean, I thought they were okay, but I wasn’t blown away. They didn’t change my life, but my life was in fact about to change. Little did I know, but I was on the very cusp of getting caught in a horticultural riptide which swept me way out into a vast sea of everything cool and elite, rare and choice, rock garden gems, woodland treasures, the newest introductions from China, endangered material from Machu Picchu, this, that, and the other thing, and the worst case of plant snobbery the world has ever seen. And that little collection of orphaned hostas? Well, they simply grew, uncomplaining, as a ten-acre collection of the world’s finest horticultural treasures got crammed into the half acre around them.
Despite myself, there were moments. I can still remember the first time I saw the hosta ‘June.’ Took my breath away. I bought it at some ridiculous price, and, dammit, to this day it’s the only hosta I’ve killed. And I’ve killed it three times! There have been one or two others I’ve picked up here and there over the years, and there have been a few other times when a deeper interest was almost kindled.
The first time this happened my desire was immediately snuffed by, of all things, a tour of eight area gardens. Garden after garden after garden of hostas and more hostas and more hostas than that, and essentially nothing else. Some of these gardens had over 300 selections! Maybe an occasional hellebore here and there. Perhaps a lonely Japanese maple would rear its head. And this was what those people thought was gardening? I was bored. I was flummoxed. I was enraged. In each garden, there stood the homeowner receiving fawning sycophants, soaking up adoration, chuckling at their own jokes, waving their arms grandly over vistas of big round leaves with different variegation, dispensing advice about deer and slugs, and thinking they were hot shit because they could adequately grow 300 types of a plant that could survive four days bareroot in the back of my truck in August.
I carried a grudge. And it took a long time to shake it too. But time passed and the anger eventually quelled. I even said to my wife one tipsy winter evening, “I think I might buy a few hostas this year.” Admittedly, they are a fine garden plant. They live in shade. Fairly dry shade at that. They give you color, texture, flowers, and sometimes even fragrance. They do so without argument. They simply carry on, giving a lot, asking very little. So, yes, I had reached a point where I thought adding a few might bring some quiet order to the cacophony of my freak show rare plant collection. That’s when I innocently went on a professional tour to the garden of a hosta breeder.
Until then, I’d never been a prejudiced man. I greeted every person I met with an open mind. No matter your race, dress, wealth, whatever, your appearance alone would never lead me to hate you. That was left strictly to your words and actions. And 99% of the time, this enriched my life. In my encounters with people who looked different, I was frequently rewarded by an uplifting and interesting interaction, sometimes a great conversation, and occasionally a new friend. Things were great! I was principled. I was living a good life. I had some pride in myself. And every bit of this was utterly and completely smashed to pieces by this tour of a hosta breeder’s garden. I now despise all bald men with gray beards.
This gentleman, who was in fact bald with a gray beard, led us on a three-hour orchestral climax of tedium that I will never recover from. Sometimes stroking his beard to appear scholarly, occasionally rubbing his baldhead to seem thoughtful, he assumed our infinite interest as he exhaustively explained the differences between 30,000 hosta seedlings. Every miniscule minutiae of his record system had to be laboriously explained, as did every other dreadful fine-toothed detail associated with the ghastly effort of introducing one or five more cultivars of a plant that already has 10,000. Shuffling along with the others, I was emptied of all the good I’ve ever had. I wanted to die. I wanted him to die. If I’d been wearing a suicide vest that day, I might have blown up the entire group!
In a foul mood on the bus back to the hotel, my chemistry changed. It suddenly made utter sense that all bald me with gray beards were tedious and worthy of unmitigated prejudice. I remembered other such people in my life. Tedious. Every one of them. A French teacher obsessed with genders and endings. A guy with a huge collection of wonky modern jazz albums. A dwarf conifer collector. The sample size was small, but 100%. There is no margin of error. I now find myself crossing to the other side of the street if a bald man with a gray beard approaches from the other direction. No tolerance for tedium here. None. Not from me. And a thing I loved about myself is gone.
I’ve had a helluva year in 2016. Diagnosed with prostate cancer, I underwent surgery to have the damned thing removed. My son had a bad accident. My parents have had health issues. I went almost an entire season without working in my garden. Thanks to good weather, everything did okay, but later in the year I needed some light work to get active again. And all those hostas from that divorcee all those years ago? They needed dividing.
As I popped them unceremoniously out of the ground—knowing full well they would survive whatever abuse I inflicted upon them—I slowly but surely developed a new appreciation for the little devils. It helped that I kept finding perfect places where a lone specimen of this one looked perfect, or a drift of that one was just grand. And suddenly I now find myself late in the season already excited about seeing the garden next year. And this is why I love plants. This is why I love gardening. Suddenly, I’m feeling really positive about hostas and appreciating their easygoing nature and big, sloppy rewards. I’m happy. I’m healthy. I’m excited for the future. Life is good. And I consider myself so fortunate that that ugly divorce in 1994 bequeathed to me these wonderful plants!
All that said, let it be known that I am never going on another Hosta Society tour. Never! And it’s going to take more than hypnosis or 12-step programs or acupuncture to reverse my hatred of bald men with gray beards. I’ve tried those things. They didn’t work. The fear and loathing remains. And the blight on my soul continues.
Scott is a Horticulturist at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, working primarily on educational symposiums, trialing, and outreach. He is Chair of the Taking Root tree planting initiative and President of the Cincinnati Flower Growers Association. His home garden, after four years of editing, is only now recovering from years of crazed collecting and over-planting.
on November 23, 2016 at 7:39 am, in the category Guest Rants.