Hosta, named for Austrian botanist Nicholas Host, is also known as plantain lily and, my favorite, funkia, after the German doctor Heinrich Christian Funck.

Native to Japan, Korea, China and eastern Russia, hostas come in dozens of species and thousands of cultivars and hybrids. They are easy to propagate by division (ideally in spring, before foliage emerges; but just about any time during the growing season will do), can be grown from seed (which won’t come true to type if it’s taken from a hybrid), and are reproduced commercially by tissue culture.

Generally thought of as shade-tolerant plants, they actually do well with some sun – such as half-day sun. In fact, the American Horticultural Society says, in its “A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants,” that various species are native to sun-baked cliffs, rocky streamsides, woodlands and alpine meadows – so there’s probably a hosta for almost any garden situation.

The American Hosta Society (americanhostasociety.org) notes that half a day of morning sun is not the same as half a day of afternoon sun and suggests that in hot areas that may dry out, additional moisture can help hostas survive. Ohio State says that full afternoon sun can burn leaf margins of some hostas in summer. Different species and cultivars tolerate different amounts of sun and shade, but not full shade. “In general,” says Ohio State, “the blue-leafed hostas require shade, while the gold, yellow and white-leafed hostas can tolerate more sun. Fragrant hostas grow best with 5-6 hours of daily sun. Morning sun with some early afternoon sun helps the fragrant blossom to develop.”

Hostas grow in hardiness zones 3 through 8 and possibly beyond. They are reportedly hardy to minus 40 F – which also happens to be minus 40 C, cold no matter which scale you use. Generally, a fertile, moist but well-drained soil is best.

These plants are usually grown for their neat clumps of foliage, which can be big and bold, medium-size, or, in the case of miniature hostas, small and delicate (with a leaf blade area no greater than about 4 square inches and a leaf blade length no greater than 4.5 inches, per the Hosta Society). The dense leaves of most hostas enable them to shade out most weeds – one trait that makes them low-maintenance plants.

In addition to variable size, hosta leaves can vary in color, from many shades of green to bluish, yellow, or variegated with white, yellow or shades of green.

Their flowers attract bees, and some are fragrant. According to Ohio State, “All fragrant hosta flowers are hybridized from Hosta plantaginea, which has 6-inch long, beautiful, white fragrant flowers.” A mass of hostas in bloom is beautiful, whether fragrant or not.

Grow hosta as a ground cover (especially under deep-rooted trees, since they’ll prevent injuring the trees when mowing the lawn), as specimen plants, in rock gardens and in containers. Interplant hostas with spring-flowering bulbs, most of which will fade by the time the hostas leaf out; with ferns; with colorful annuals, such as coleus and impatiens; or with shrubs.

Deer like hostas, “especially those hostas with the fragrant flowered parents,” says the American Hosta Society. And slugs, says the AHS, seem to prefer “plants with the species H. plantaginea in the background.” I find iron phosphate products, such as Sluggo, minimize slug damage.

Hosta Virus X, which causes mottling, stunting, and/or twisted or puckered leaves, is a concern. It is spread when the infected sap of one plant is transferred to a wound or opening of another plant – with pruning shears, for example, or digging tools. This virus has appeared in Maine. “If symptoms are observed,” says the Maine Department of Agriculture, “destroy affected plants by burning, or sending to the landfill. HVX does not survive long in the soil. Once the roots of the infected plants have decomposed you can replant a virus free hosta in the same spot.” (www.maine.gov/agriculture/pi/pestsurvey/pestinfo/hostavirusx.htm)

Merryspring Nature Center in Camden (merryspring.org) has a nice display of hostas, and Fernwood at 58 North Ridge Rd. in Montville (just off Route 3; http://fernwoodnursery.blogspot.com) is a great place to buy these and other shade-tolerant plants.