Friday, March 29, 2013

Ellen Zachos: Hostas Are Delicious

Slugs know something you don’t know: hostas are delicious.

Hostas are one of the world’s most popular shade plants. There are so many different species and cultivars that it’s possible to have a garden of nothing but hostas: blue leaves, chartreuse leaves, green margins with a white center, white margins with a green center, plants that are 3 feet tall, plants that are 3 inches tall . . . you get the picture. And every one of them has at one time or another been marked by the silvery slime of a slug trail: glorious foliage desecrated by the rasping mouth parts of a backyard mollusk. And don’t get me started on the deer! A hosta border is Bambi’s buffet.

All hostas are safe to eat, but the taste varies, so try a
nibble here and there to see which one you like best.
Photograph © by Rob Cardillo from Backyard Foraging.

I’m a gardener by profession but a forager by nature. I love exploring the great outdoors and bringing home wild edibles for the dinner table, but I realize not everyone is comfortable feeding a family with unfamiliar plants. So why not look in your own backyard? You already know what you have growing there, and I bet you’ll be surprised by how many familiar ornamental plants are also delicious. Like hostas.

In Japan young hosta shoots are served as a vegetable dish called urui. Petioles (leaf stems) of Hosta sieboldii are skinned and parboiled, then chopped and served over rice. In northern Japan H. montana is a commercial crop. Plants are grown in greenhouses and kept covered to blanch/tenderize the foliage. Steamed or lightly boiled, then served with a miso mustard sauce, they make a fresh and unusual spring dish.

I’m not suggesting you raze your carefully manicured shade garden to the ground or that you ransack the rare hosta collection at your local botanical garden. But when the snow finally melts (will it ever melt?) and those first hosta shoots poke up through the ground, why not experiment with a new spring vegetable? The taste varies among species and cultivars, but all are safe to eat.

This little hosta shoot is at the perfect stage for harvesting. Photograph © by Rob Cardillo from Backyard Foraging.

The newest, tightest shoots can be chopped, stir-fried, and served over pasta or rice. Slightly older, but still tender, shoots with the leaves just ready to open up can be briefly blanched, wrapped in prosciutto, then oven-roasted (450ยบF for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the shoot) and drizzled with pesto. For a simpler preparation sautรฉ and serve with a little garlic and soy. The taste is light, mild, and fresh, somewhere between lettuce and young spinach.

Older leaves can be boiled for 15 to 20 minutes, then chopped and sautรฉed with other mature greens in soups or baked in a pie like spanakopita. But to enjoy the taste of hosta in its prime, pick the young stems before the leaves unfurl.

To preserve the integrity of the plant, harvest from the outer ring of shoots, working your way evenly around the circumference of the hosta. Don’t remove more than one-third of the shoots. Or if you’ve been meaning to divide those giant hostas at the back of your shady border, why not set aside part of the plant to serve for dinner?

Take a lesson from the lowly slug.

— Ellen Zachos


Ellen Zachos leads foraging walks and currently teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, where she received her certification in commercial horticulture and ethnobotany. She writes two blogs, which can be found at and and has written numerous gardening books and contributed to publications including Horticulture and Better Homes & Gardens.

Backyard Foraging

65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat
You don't need to trek into the forest to forage edible plants. Ideal for first-time foragers, this book features 70 edible weeds, flowers, mushrooms, and ornamental plants typically found in urban or suburban neighborhoods. You'll be amazed by how many of the plants you see each day are actually nutritious edibles! Full-color photographs make identification easy, and tips on where certain plants are likely to be found, how to avoid pollution and pesticides, and how to recognize the plants you should never harvest make foraging as safe and simple as stepping into your own backyard.

Down & Dirty!

43 Fun & Funky First-Time Projects & Activities to Get You Gardening
Gardening for the nongardener, Down & Dirty! is the perfect resource for the first homeowner wondering what to do with the yard, the small apartment dweller looking for the right greenery and the right advice, or anyone wanting to pull together kids, family, friends, or neighbors for a community activity. Fun outdoor projects cover everything from attracting birds to preparing treats with your homegrown strawberries. Each project includes the basics, clear and accessible information, and step-by-step instructions for getting your hands dirty!

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