The Hostas of Frances Williams


Mrs. Frances Williams is of special interest to me for two reasons. She was the first woman to graduate from my alma mater, MIT, with a degree in landscape architecture in 1904. She was also the first great American hosta hybridizer and some of her plants are among my favorites in my own garden. For those interested in biographical information about the woman, I recommend you read Diana Grenfell’s account in Hosta, The Flowering Foliage Plant, sadly now out of print. Here I propose to discuss some of her cultivars that I think belong in every hosta garden.

 H. ‘Frances Williams’. This gold-edged sport of H. sieboldiana ‘elegans’ is both among the most popular hostas and the most notorious. Much has been written about its tendency to develop necrosis in the golden border of the leaf. Still more has been written about whether the plant in the trade is H. ‘Frances Williams’, but I have decided that when grown properly all of them are among my favorite hostas.

 It is true that the cultivar does not like late spring frosts, and such events seem to increase the incidence of rust on the gold border. Many hostas in my garden don’t like late frosts and some of them get a whole lot more messed up than a few rust spots on the edges of the leaves. In years when I am unlucky, I just live with it and look forward to the next year.

 The other common belief is that too much sun causes these rust spots to develop. My own experience is that too little water is what brings on marginal necrosis. I have H. ‘Frances Williams’ in many microenvironments, from full shade against a building to high shade under trees to full sun. The best looking plants are consistently those not trying to live among thirsty tree roots. In full shade, the leaves are huge with a deep glaucous blue center and a chartreuse-gold margin. In full sun, the leaves have almost frosty looking blue-green centers and bright gold margins. By mid-July in upstate New York, the margins tend to develop rust spots in full sun, but then so do many other cultivars. In May and June, the full-sun H. ‘Frances Williams’ is a thing of glory in my moisture retentive, high clay soil. H. ‘Olive Bailey Langdon’ is a similar plant which I also love, but it is still not the huge, glorious mound of giant leaves that is H. ‘Frances Williams’ at its very best.


 H. ‘Green Piecrust’.     This is my favorite piecrust-edged hosta. Others are nice and I also very much like H. ‘Donahue’s Piecrust’, but the combination of deeply incised veins and large stately leaves with piecrust margins just catches my eye every time. I do have to admit that the tall scapes and heavy burden of large seed pods detract from the overall formal effect, so I usually cut them off. My largest plant is 7 years old and it is still increasing slowly in size, becoming larger and more impressive each year.

 H. ‘Dorothy’.        This is a cross of H. ‘Decorata’ and H. ‘Fortunei’ that is now nearly 60 years old. I have only one plant of this cultivar in my garden and it is an old, and venerable clump. Somehow it seems to me that this cultivar has leaves that are a unique shade of green, almost an olive drab. Visitors to my garden almost always ask me which hosta it is because of the leaf color, and particularly if it is in bloom with its many scapes of dark lavender flowers. I have hundreds of green species and cultivars in my garden, but none of them look like this plant. H. ‘Dorothy’ is subtle, but distinctive.

H. ‘Betsy King’.        This is a cross H. ‘Decorata’ and H. sieboldii and is another old cultivar. The plant forms a nice medium-sized green clump with flat leaves and deeply incised veins. The flowers are spectacular. They are essentially as dark as those of H. ventricosa and sit on shorter scapes. To my eye they look very appropriately proportioned and make a striking floral statement in early summer. If you like good hosta flowers, this is absolutely a cultivar to consider.

H. ‘Louisa’.          This seedling of H. sieboldii was the first white-margined hosta cultivar to have white flowers. Frances Williams named it for her daughter. It is modestly stoloniferous and it is not the strongest grower in the garden. When it is perfectly sited, however, it makes a very pleasing small mound and is delightful in full bloom. If you don’t need white flowers, H. ‘Ginko Craig’ or H. ‘Little White Lines’ or just H. sieboldii (Paxton) are probably more vigorous alternatives. But is you are willing to fuss a little bit this can be a very rewarding hosta to grow.

H. ‘Sweet Susan’.          This cross between H. plantaginea and H. sieboldii was the first cultivar to have fragrant dark purple flowers. Like H. ‘Betsy King’ it makes quite a statement in the garden when in bloom. Otherwise it is a relatively nondescript green clump. H. ‘Invincible’ is a much better choice for foliage, although the flowers are pale lavender. I grow it mostly because it is a Frances Williams hybrid and because the fragrant purple flowers still do catch one unawares on occasion.  

H. ‘Carol’.            This is a sport of H. ‘Fortunei’ is a stately medium-sized green hosta with clean white margins on its leaves. In my garden I have trouble telling it apart from H. ‘North Hills’ and H. ‘Crowned Imperial’. Frances Williams named it for her granddaughter. Like H. ‘Louisa’, this cultivar is not always easy to grow to perfection, but is a very striking medium-sized clump when happy.

H. ‘Purple Profusion’, H. ‘Sentinels’, and H. ‘Lavender Lady’.     These three H. sieboldii hybrids are similar in leaf and flower. The first two have five pairs of veins and the third, three pairs. All three make nice small clumps and green lanceolate leaves for good foliage contrast with more rounded -leaf varieties. Otherwise all three are mostly of historical interest. Of course I grow them all because they were hybridized by Frances Williams!

H. ‘Fountain’.         This is an older cultivar that resulted from a cross between H. montana and H. sieboldiana. Hensen renamed it H. ‘Fountain’ because its older name, H. sieboldiana ‘Longipes’ was incorrect. H. ‘Fountain’ is typically not available, but I am fortunate to have a division of the plant that Alex Summers got directly from Mrs. Williams. It’s another medium to large green plant with ugly tall scapes bearing white flowers, but its provenance makes it one of my personal favorites.

Steve Chamberlain

Manlius, New York