How Did the American Hosta Society Begin?

Two individuals living hundreds of miles apart, became the founders of The American Hosta Society, now numbering nearly 3,000 members. The idea of a plant society dedicated to hostas was conceived by Alex J. Summers, then of Long Island, New York, and Eunice V. (Mrs. Glen) Fisher of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Based on the pioneering work done by Mrs. Frances R. Williams, a professional landscape architect, who in the 1930s transferred all of her gardening energies to the genus Hosta, a few enthusiasts in the Midwest and on the East Coast established collections of hostas and began “spreading the gospel” to other gardeners.

Hosta Garden

In a letter to Eunice, dated January 29, 1968, Alex came up with the idea to approach these “hosta pioneers” and to propose the establishment of a national hosta society. Eunice wrote back to him on March 5, 1968, about a long talk she had with Mervin C. Eisel, then associated with the Landscape Arboretum of the University of Minnesota, about the same subject, and with this correspondence, the foundation of our society was laid.

Alex and Eunice forged right ahead and began a lively exchange of telephone conversations and correspondence. On March 20 they were already discussing letterheads and formulating invitations to join. The first typed “treasurer’s report” came April 16, 1968: The fledgling society had 4 members, each of whom contributed $3.00, and one sustaining member, Merv Eisel, who gave $10.00. The total society income was $22.00. This money was promptly spent on 500 pieces of letterhead and 500 invitations to join, 30 envelopes, and postage for 25 letters for a total of $22.00. Yes, printing and mailing costs were a lot less expensive then.

With the invitations mailed out, the society had grown to 35 members by July of 1968 with its treasury boasting the grand sum of $139.60. Among the founding charter members were Dr. R. C. Allen, Harold Epstein, Mrs. Eunice C. Fisher, David Stone, Alex J. Summers, and Dr. and Mrs. John C. Wister. The founding President was Alex Summers, who held this post as well as that of editor of the American Hosta Society Bulletin from 1968 until 1978. Eunice Fisher was the founding Secretary/Treasurer.

The first “convention” took place on July 7, 1968, at the home of Dr. and Mrs. John C. Wister in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Very soon this was followed by the first issue of a society newsletter when on July 18, 1968, 100 copies of the newsletter were printed at a cost of $9.15 with 70 copies being sent out to members. By Christmas of 1968, our society had 135 members and $363.22 in the bank. Eunice then in her seventies, had faithfully typed and mailed dozens of letters and reports to Alex. In March of 1969, our total assets were $634.03 coming from dues paid by 147 members (11 sustaining) and including our first auction proceeds of $14.78!

Also in March of 1969, the first issue of the American Hosta Society Bulletin (later The Hosta Journal) was published. It was a very informative publication put together by Alex almost single-handedly and it contributed much to the increase in membership. In the first issue of The Bulletin, aside from Alex and Eunice, the advisory board was listed and consisted of Dr. R. C. Allen, Harold Epstein, David Stone, and Dr. John C. Wister. Membership had grown to 221 by the spring of 1970.

In the early 1970s, primarily because of the work done by the founding hosta enthusiasts, the International Society for Horticultural Science, The Hague, The Netherlands, appointed the University of Minnesota as The International Registration Authority (IRA) for the genus Hosta. Mr. Mervin C. Eisel was named the International Registrar. He had served as the informal “Registration Chairman” from 1969 until his retirement. After Merv’s retirement, David H. Stevenson took over as International Registrar.  In 2000, David H. Stevenson stepped down as International Registrar and The AHS Board appointed Jim Wilkins to replace him.

Under the early leadership of Alex and Eunice and their helpers, followed in later years by many dedicated hosta enthusiasts taking terms in the guidance of our society, The American Hosta Society has grown into a smoothly functioning organization and is today the world’s leading association promoting the genus Hosta.

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Hosta On Stage Choko Nishiki

H. 'Choko Nishiki' in foreground

The History of Hostas

In East Asia, hostas have been grown in gardens for centuries. Chinese documents mention hostas as early as the Han Dynasty 206 BC-220 AD, and in Japan they show up in scripts preceding the Nara period beginning in 710 AD. The 1829-1830 importations of hostas by Philipp von Siebold started hosta cultivation in the West, first in Europe in the early 1830s, and they reached North America just a few years after, a clear indication of their popularity.

Although planted in gardens — even parks and cemeteries here and there — hostas did not attain the fame and popularity other perennials like daylilies had. This may have to do with the fact that most available hostas had plain green leaves and only a few variegated hostas were available. In the 1930s a few hosta enthusiasts realized that some of the hostas at hand had developed variegated leaves and interest in our favorite shade perennial began to develop.