Dr. Warren I. Pollock

Wilmington, Delaware USA


    What’s new in the vast world of hostas? What’s exciting from the hybridizers? What new sports and chance seedlings have been found? What’s unique in leaf colors, patterns and textures? What eye-catching cultivars might be offered in the near future?

     To get a first look at the behind-the-scenes activities in the seedling and sporting arenas, a new and novel American Hosta Society (AHS) regional meeting was held this year – appropriately called FIRST LOOK. Its specific mission was to display not-yet-introduced hosta clumps and determine which ones ranked high by a panel of judges, as well as which ones the attendees liked best.    

     FIRST LOOK is the brainstorm of William (Bill) Meyer, a New Jersey resident. He has a very keen interest in hostas, continually investigating and analyzing what’s in the market place, what’s hot. He has the reputation of visiting every nursery and garden center within a three-hour drive of his home scouting for unusual hosta variants, especially those with streaked leaves, of which he’s amassed a fairly large collection..  

     Bill Meyer, and Carol Brashear, who lives in Connecticut and perhaps is best known for her superb color photographs in The Hosta Journal, the AHS’s twice-a-year publication, are the principals that organized the FIRST LOOK meeting on Saturday, July 9th, at a downtown Stamford, Connecticut, hotel.

     AHS Region One, for which Carol has been the director for several years, sponsored FIRST LOOK. The AHS is divided into eight U.S.-Canadian geographic regions. Region One comprises the New England states, which include, for example, Massachusetts and Connecticut. New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are also in AHS Region One. Most FIRST LOOK attendees were from Region One, but there was also a handful from Region Two, which includes Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

     Exhibiting and judging new seedlings and sports has always been an important part of an AHS Hosta Show (formerly called Cut-Leaf Show) at each AHS National Convention and at many regional and local hosta society meetings. Seen in the exhibition rooms there are two leaves for each unregistered entry in the neck of a bottle, held tightly upright with cotton wadding. These bottles, which vary in size depending on the size of the leaves, are displayed row-after-row on long tables according to the show schedule, with separate sections for solid-colored and variegated leaves and with different classes within the sections for leaf colors and patterns. Ribbons are awarded based on a point scoring system (which I’ll describe shortly).

     What Bill Meyer and many others have noted and commented on for many years is such a competition does not give a truly satisfactory look or comprehensive appreciation of the cultivars entered. That what happens is that exhibitors carefully scan the new seedlings and sports in their nurseries and gardens, picking out for each plant only the best looking and unblemished two leaves that have the most similar appearance. That these leaves may be the only two on the plant that look alike doesn’t matter. That the plants may have many solid-colored leaves and the leaves exhibited are variegated doesn’t matter either. Further, that the clump(s) may be of immature size and only a single division with juvenile leaves not having mature characteristics doesn’t matter also.  But perhaps the biggest fault with exhibiting two upright leaves is it doesn’t give any clue, or certainly not much of one, as what the actual clump looks (or would look) like growing in a garden.   

     So Bill promoted the idea of having a competition in which entire clumps would be shown and judged. And he formulated a new set of show rules, some being: All plants must have at least two divisions, all of an identical type; for example, a plant that is two divisions, one with green leaves and one with variegated leaves, cannot be entered. Plants can only be entered in an ordinary (plain) black plastic pot. Pots are exhibited on one foot- (0.3m-) high risers (platforms), allowing the entries to be viewed and judged as if in the ground. Platforms are covered in black cloth to give a uniform dark background along with the black containers. (Tables at AHS Hosta Shows are covered with white cloth, often not a very flattering color for showing off hosta leaves.)

    Other rules allowed exhibitors to decide which side of their plants looks best and is to be viewed by the judges. If the underside of the leaves or the petioles’ coloring is an attribute to be considered, a paper clip can pin back one leaf.  Judging is done two feet (0.7m) from the platforms, simulating how the plants would most likely be viewed in the garden. (At AHS Hosta Shows, judges often get their noses within an inch (2.5cm) of the leaves for a microscopic analysis of their qualities [read: minutest pinhole, blemish or speck of dirt].)

     FIRST LOOK had a different point scoring system than at AHS Hosta Shows. For unregistered seedlings and sports at an accredited AHS Hosta Show, the maximum points are:

Distinction                     25 At FIRST LOOK the points were:
Color and Pattern            20
Form and Size                 15 Uniqueness                    30
Substance                     15 Color                             20
Texture                             15 Pattern                            20
Condition and Grooming  5 Leaf Form and Texture  20
Labeling                          5 Substance                      10

      Correctly in my view, at FIRST LOOK there was no scoring category for Condition and Grooming. In fact, the rules allowed repair of broken petioles and torn leaves with transparent tape. Exhibitors were asked to bring clean plants and pots, which probably meant a gentle hosing of the leaves and a good scrubbing of the containers. Importantly, they did not have to undertake the laborious efforts that exhibitors at AHS Hosta Shows go through to clean spotlessly their individual leaves using fine-pointed soft brushes, cotton-tipped swabs and facial sponges with soapy water, along with examinations under a hand lens. (At one AHS Hosta Show I saw an exhibitor spend five minutes cleaning one leaf – and she had 20 leaves intended to be entered. I came back when she was finished to notice six were discarded. She said she couldn’t get them “clean enough.”)

     What FIRST LOOK wanted was for clumps to be exhibited with all their leaves au naturel, as they would customarily look in a garden. Admirably, FIRST LOOK was not intended to be a “clean-finger-nails” competition.

     There also was no scoring category for Labeling. I’ve never understood why there is such a category in AHS Hosta Shows when the Classification Clerks’ responsibilities are to assure entries are correctly classified and labeled before being entered in the show. For labels, FIRST LOOK simply used code numbers, though sports entries were also marked with “Sport of ...” to identify parentage.

     Color and Pattern were each given 20 points. Form and Size along with Texture were regrouped into Leaf Form and Texture with 20 points total. Substance was down graded  from 15 points (at an AHS show) to 10 points. And instead of the term Distinction, Uniqueness was used and given the lion’s share, 30 points.

     I was one of the sports judges, so I can recite how the judging was done for these entries. I assume the seedlings were judged the same way.  

    The judging methodology used has many names, the most common probably is “deductive scoring.” Each judge studies the clump and decides how many points should be taken off for each category, then adds up the total points deducted and subtracts it from 100. A consensus of the judges determines what score the entry receives. At AHS Hosta Shows there must be at least three accredited AHS judges in each judging group or panel; often a dozen groups are needed to judge a single show. At FIRST LOOK there were two groups, each of four judges, one for sports and the other for seedlings.

    For most of the sports entries, usually only a few points were deduced for Color, Pattern, Leaf Form and Texture, and Substance. Most of these entries, as I recall, had no more than 9 total points deducted for these four categories. Had it not been for Uniqueness, they would have received a Blue Ribbon (First Place), which requires 90 points or higher, and those with 95 point or higher would qualify for Best in Class. From the Best in Class, the overall sports winner is chosen.

     Just prior to judging, a special briefing session, chaired by the show’s Head Judge Barbara Jones, was convened for the judges. It was intended for them to become acquainted with the FIRST LOOK show rules and to get “warmed up” as to what might be expected in judging entire clumps. Definitions of Unique and also Distinct taken from several American dictionaries and other references were read and discussed. My dictionary gives these- Unique: being the only one of its kind, solitary, sole; also, being without an equal or equivalent, unparalleled. Distinct: not identical, individual, discrete; also, not similar, different, unlike.

     As it turned out for the sports, the point deductions for the Uniqueness category mostly determined which plants received Blue Ribbons and Best in Class. From my first hand knowledge, I can say that the judges awarded the top prize – the overall winner – to the sport that had the most unique and different variegation among all the sports in the competition. Since the judges were pretty knowledgeable of what’s in the current marketplace, it’s probably safe to say they selected a hosta with leaves that are unique and different among the thousands in today’s vast hosta world.

     I now need to mention the four awards that were established for FIRST LOOK.  They were named to honor those from AHS Region One “who led the way with their pioneering work in the genus”:

·        Bill and Eleanor Lachman Award for the best seedling selected by the judges as the best seedling overall in the competition,

·        Kevin Vaughn Award for the best sport overall as chosen by the judges,

·        Mildred Seaver Award for the best seedling chosen by the FIRST LOOK attendees, and

·        Frances Williams Award for the best sport overall chosen by the FIRST LOOK attendees.

     Each award winner received a trophy and also $300 (roughly £200) cash, intended to cover expenses. The trophies were copper birdbaths, about a foot high and two-foot square. Several local hosta societies and AHS Region One sponsored them. Three prominent hosta nurseries and AHS Region One donated the cash awards, which totaled $1200 (about £800).

     FIRST LOOK was the first time that cash awards were given at a hosta show. In early 2001, over $6000 (some £4000) was raised by AHS Region One from an auction of rare and unusual hostas held on the Internet to help pay for the meeting’s expenses.

     Both the Kevin Vaughn and Frances Williams Awards went to Alex Malloy of North Salem, New York, for H. ‘Alley Oop’, a sport of H. ‘Fortunei Aoki’ (aka H. ‘Aoki’). Most interestingly, both the judges and the attendees selected the same sport. The judges’ made their selection first and the attendees did not know of it when they were voting. The winners were announced at the evening’s banquet in an Academy AwardsÒ OscarÒ style: The envelope please; the winner is.... He came twice to the dais, going away with a total of $600 (roughly £400).

     Alex tells me the origin of the name H. ‘Alley Oop’ is his third grandchild named Alley. But he quickly adds there are others too. Alex G. Malloy is the author of a popular book now in its 8th edition, Comic Values Annual 2000: The Comic Books Price Guide. “Alley Oop” is a comic strip that originated in the 1930s and still is being drawn and syndicated today. The main character, Alley Oop, rides a pet dinosaur in a prehistoric land and is time-transported to the present for various adventures. “I thought the comic strip has the same expression as the hosta,” he says. (I’m not sure how to interpret this other than the leaves have a “Jurassic Park” look.) “Alley Oop” is also the name of an early ‘60s song, which Alex says “gives a fun expression of the plant in my eyes.”

     A photograph of H. ‘Alley Oop’ taken by Alex Mallory is in this journal. If you have access to the Internet, I suggest you click on www.hostalibrary.org, then A, Ac-al, and finally Alley Oop. Shown are three pictures taken last year. The first, an excellent photo by Carol Brashear, is of a single leaf and probably depicts the “idealistic pattern” for this hosta, the variegation that every H. ‘Alley Oop’ leaf is assumed to look like. The other two photos show the non-uniform variegation of young, single-division leaves. (Note: These are the photos in the Hosta Pictue Library as of August 2001.)

    At least for judging sports, what FIRST LOOK revealed, in my judgement, is that there is something missing or askew with the point scoring system. Namely, it does not take into account the key criteria most of us consider in judging a hosta when we first see the plant in a nursery, catalogue photograph or flower show stand such as at Chelsea or Hampton Court Palace.

     What are the missing criteria? Simply they are the hosta’s overall aesthetics and garden worthiness.

     Is the hosta attractive? Is it pleasingly distinctive? Is it aesthetically pleasing (I think that’s an oxymoron)? Would you pay $, £ to acquire it for your own garden?

     Also, is it a good doer? Simply, does it grow? Does it have vigor? Does it need to be babied? Does it need a special location in the garden?

     (There are a few hostas, though, not noted for being good doers yet are highly coveted. It’s been said that nurseries and gardeners who have had trouble growing H. ‘Great Expectations’ would have thrown it into the dustbin long ago, if it were not for its mature leaves being so boldly handsome.)

    Other considerations: Is the hosta a good multiplier? Is it going to remain a single division for years, as the H. ‘Tokudama’ types do?

    What FIRST LOOK revealed is a plant can receive the most total points for Uniqueness, Color, Pattern, Leaf Form and Texture, and Substance, yet perhaps not be aesthetically pleasing and not garden worthy also.

     Bob Solberg (Green Hill Farm in North Carolina), whom many of you probably know as the introducer of H. ‘Guacamole’ (large open mound having golden leaves with dark green margin and fragrant near-white flowers), publishes a chatty tabloid-size catalogue/newspaper called The Green Hill Gossip. In the January 2001 issue, he wrote an article titled “What makes a good hosta?” 

     “It is hosta color that catches our eye first,” he states. “A good hosta attracts the eye with color and then seduces us with its other charms. Color is only the beginning. How does the hosta display that color? ‘Accessories’ are important. And accessories naturally lead to distinctness. A good hosta is recognizable.

     Bob goes on to explain the 10-foot (3m) rule, “If I cannot identify a hosta from ten feet away then I do not want it,” and the police lineup test, “If I cannot pick that hosta out of a lineup of similar ones then I do not need it.” As an example he cites the ease of identifying H. ‘Sum and Substance’ from a car or coach window traveling 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) past a garden. (Actually this is the 20-foot (6m) rule, which is best used for large hosta clumps.)

    There is some thing critically missing in having unique or distinctive as the paramount consideration in judging new hostas. It is the critical modifier pleasing or pleasingly. Somehow it seems pleasingly was not considered or at least not considered sufficiently in judging sports at FIRST LOOK.

    How do judges determine how hostas have this pleasingly characteristic? What benchmarks or standards should be used? What are the paradigms? Indeed, I wonder if pleasingly unique or distinctive can be quantified? Is pleasingly unique or distinctive too subjective? One is reminded that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

    The problem, as I see it, is that pleasingly unique or distinctive is a combination, sometimes complexly interwoven, of vital attributes: clump form and leaf color, pattern, texture, substance, etc. – a plant’s entirety. There are occasions for which the petiole coloring is an important attribute too. And there are occasions for which the flowers are important, but this character is not considered at hosta leaf shows.

     Certainly H. ‘Alley Oop’ is unique or distinctive. And indeed, it was the most unique or distinctive hosta sport in the competition – the overall winner. There is no doubt that the leaf variegation is uncommon, maybe wild, perhaps even weird. (I often refer to such leaves as “kinky” and the hostas as “kinkies.”) But what is as important is --- do you like the variegation? Is it pleasingly unique or distinctive to you?

     Does H. ‘Alley Oop’ meet the 10-foot rule? It might. But even so, unless you’re an avid collector that needs to acquire every new hosta that comes on the market and price is no restriction, do you want (or need) this hosta in your garden?

     How commercially viable is H. ‘Alley Oop’? Should any commercial aspect – albeit perhaps small – even be considered in judging the show’s entries?

     Now on to the other two awards for seedlings. The Bill and Eleanor Lachman Award and the Mildred Seaver Award went to Randell (Ran) Lydell of Cooks Nursery Eagle Bay Gardens in Dunkirk, New York – but not for the same hosta. Like Alex Malloy, he twice came to the dais, leaving $600 richer.

     I mentioned earlier that I was not involved with judging seedlings, so I have no first-hand knowledge of the winners. Accordingly, I asked Ran for descriptions and he kindly supplied them:

     “The Lachman Award,” he said, “was for a small hosta. It has ovate leaves about 3 inches [7.5cm] long and 2 inches [5cm] wide. They are randomly patterned in green and blue.  The plant has a very low profile, 3 inches high, and is (so far in four years) less than 12 inches [0.3m] wide. Blooms are very light lavender and (so far) on 6- to 7-inch [15 to 18cm] tall scapes. 

     “The history of this plant may interest you. During the early and mid-nineties, Pete Ruh [the highly knowledgeable hosta icon and collector in Chesterland, Ohio] and I made several trips to Canada looking for the plants that had been distributed from the "break-up" of the hosta collection owned by Henry Landis of Toronto after his death. This included some things that were quite rare. We found some of these plants in a greenhouse behind a small nursery north of Hamilton, Ontario.

     “After two trips there the owner finally agreed to let us purchase a few of the plants. They had been marked with plastic tags that were in poor condition. I spotted a streaked one that I could make out ‘Flamboyant’ on it. As this hosta was very hard to get, I included it in the purchases. When I got the plant home and pulled the tag, it said “Flamboyant X seedling” and was assigned a number. It turned out to be a numbered Lachman “breeder.” I called Eleanor and asked about it, but she no longer had the plant.  A cross with this plant and H. ‘Hadspen Blue’ resulted in my “breeder” H. ‘Crazy Quilt’. A cross with H. ‘Crazy Quilt’ and H. ‘Blue Moon’ resulted in the Lachman Award winner.

     “This hosta will carry the name H. ‘Jump Start’”

     “The Mildred Seaver Award,” he continued, “was for a medium-sized plant.  It has somewhat cupped and heart-shaped leaves. The leaves, with very distinct points, are margined in a blue-green, with a secondary area of bright green and very light cream centers.  The center area makes up about half of the leaf surface. The plant gets to be 12 inches high and about 30 inches [0.75m] wide. 

     “It is a stabilized selection from a streaked H. ‘Candle Glow’ seedling that resulted from open pollination. The seed source was a trade with Van Wade [whose extensive hosta gardens and nursery in Bellville, Ohio are legendary].

     “I’ve named this hosta H. ‘Superfection’.”

     Both of Ran Lydell’s winners meet the criterion of pleasingly unique or distinctive. They are hostas I’d like in my garden. I’m sure he’s started to propagate both H. ‘Jump Start’ and ‘Superfection’, perhaps by tissue culture (micropropagation). Having won these coveted FIRST LOOK Awards, no doubt they will initially command upmarket prices – and perhaps rightly so.

     Much, much more can and probably should be written about judging at a FIRST LOOK meeting, but I’ll stop now.

     Before closing this subject, I must mention that the after-dinner speaker was BHHS Chairman and Bulletin Editor Michael Shadrack. He gave a most interesting, well-prepared slide presentation on the late Eric Smith, the U.K.’s premier hosta hybridizer who bred the classic, blue-leaved Tardiana Group hostas, of which H. ‘Halcyon’ is perhaps the best known worldwide. Mike will be giving this lecture to other hosta groups in the States in 2001 and 2002. If he’s not scheduled to present it to the BHHS, I suggest you get him to do so. I’m sure you’ll greatly enjoy the facts and stories he’s uncovered and the sites he’s photographed.

     FIRST LOOK 2 is planned for 2002. I’m told considerable changes will be made including judging. If I’m a judge there, it will be interesting to compare the two meetings.

 Excerpted from an article titled "Letter from America" by Dr. Warren I. Pollock  in the "British Hosta and Hemerocallis Society Bulletin 2001."