Hostas are one of my favourite plants to have in a garden. I find their foliage deliciously seductive, sensual and vibrant and their flowers intriguingly beautiful. I understand why hostas are one of the world’s most popular shade plants; this Asian perennial is as hardy as it is beautiful. Also known as Plantain Lilies, this genus in the family Asparagaceae contains some 45 species and cultivars. I’ve been looking after them in various gardens for many years: from my home in British Columbia to various house-sits in Ontario (I used to house/cat-sit a lot when I first came to Ontario).
What I didn’t know was that they taste as good as they look!
Hostas were once (and still are) harvested as a tasty woodland edible that have become a cultivated plant in our backyards. Forage Chef tells us that in Japan hostas (called gibōshi) are known as Urui and described “as a type of Sansai: an umbrella term for wild plants harvested from the mountains.” Gardener’s Journal shares that, in Japan Hosta montana “is grown as a commercial crop…cultivated in greenhouses and kept covered to blanch/tenderize the foliage. Steamed or lightly boiled, then served with a miso-mustard sauce, they make a traditional spring dish.”
Ashley Adamant of Practical Self Reliance writes that hostas provide green roughage like lettuce of asparagus and adding traces of minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, copper, zinc and phosphorus.
Hostas are best collected to eat when they are just young shoots before they unfurl; that’s shortly after everything thaws in early May here in Ontario.
The collection and preparation is easy. All I did was identify a patch of hostas in early spring that I knew were not sprayed or treated in any way and snipped the young unfurled shoots. Luckily, my good friend Merridy has them in her garden in Peterborough and was willing to donate some for a taste. I knew she hadn’t sprayed them.
Merridy snipped tightly coiled hosta spears close to the ground then washed any dirt off. For those of you wondering if cutting shoots would result in bald spots in the garden, according to scottishforestgarden.com, “the first flush of leaf shoots can be cut down to encourage a second flush… It is possible to harvest the whole first flush of leaves of an established plant without killing it: ornamental hosta growers will sometimes ‘mow’ their plants to get a second flush of fresh, attractive leaves.”
I fried my hosta shoots with butter in my iron cast skillet for two minutes, browning them and caramelizing the outside. This added some sweetness to the savoury and added texture. I served them with baked trout and a mixed salad on one occasion and with my homemade version of spaghetti alfredo on another. In both cases, the hosta shoots weren’t overpowered by the rest of the meal; all conspired wonderfully in a sensual cornucopia of flavour, texture and smell.
Hosta spring shoots have the look and feel and even taste of a spring onion and lettuce greens; a slight lemony peppery flavour mixed with sweet buttery taste and mild astringent finish. Ashley Adamant of Practical Self Reliance, describes the taste of hosta from her garden as a something between a scallion and asparagus. I didn’t note an asparagus flavour but did catch an astringent metallic finish (similar to asparagus) from the seared part of the leaf. Ashley also acknowledges that “the taste will vary a bit from variety to variety.” They will also vary according to how they are prepared and who the taster is!
Given their delicate flavour and my wish to enjoy their unique flavour unencumbered, I cooked my hostas simply, in butter with onions and garlic or just in butter. When I checked the internet, a saw that Forage Chef used a very similar method as did Ashley to mine in cooking their hostas. Tipper Presley of Celebrating Appalachia bakes her hosta spears in the oven drizzled with oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. She serves them with stew beef, potatoes and corn bread with pickles.
Forage Chef adds that you can also marinate seared hostas with soy, maple, garlic and hot chili and serve warm or cold.
Here are a few recipes that go beyond the simple: bacon-wrapped hosta shoots; hosta shoots salad with a balsamic reduction; hostas with prosciutto and pesto; pan seared hosta shoots with ramp butter. I will have to try a few of them!
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.