A Hosta of a Different Color ~ H. 'El Niño' vs. H. 'First Frost'
Joanna Kovalcsik, Vassar, Michigan
   On a sunny September day in 2009, I was visiting Hosta Hills Gardens owned by Mark and Bevie Schmidt of Tustin, Michigan.  Nearing the end of a wonderful tour, during which the word “wow” kept escaping my lips, I paused for a moment in front of a particular hosta grouping.  Planted about five feet apart under the shade of red pines were H. ‘El Niño’ and H. ‘First Frost’.   In my attempt to identify an unmarked gift hosta in my own garden, I had narrowed the field of possibilities to these two.  Here was an opportunity to make some comparisons, but very quickly their beauty shifted me from analyzing to admiring. 
   Though ‘El Niño’ was quite similar in shape and color, my eye kept returning to ‘First Frost’ and its sea-colored leaves, surrounded by a creamy white edge.  Both hostas were glaucous, but there was a unique color quality to the leaf center on ‘First Frost’.  It was perhaps a shade bluer and blended with gray-green.  Since my focus was mainly upon that characteristic, I didn’t notice if it boasted another defining quality that would, in the future, set ‘First Frost’ completely apart from ‘El Niño’ in my mind.  However, before that could happen, I would need a Hostapix introduction to Warren Pollock.
   Hostapix is an online group of collectors, growers, and hybridizers who share photos and information about hosta.  In October 2009, I was still a fairly new member, getting to know people in the hosta community.  I had not yet joined The American Hosta Society and had never seen a copy of The Hosta Journal.  Hosta authority and collector, W. George Schmid, posted a request on Hostapix, from someone named “Warren,” for folks to come up with a list of their top ten hostas that had been introduced in the last decade.  That sounded like fun, so I sent a reply, extolling the virtues of a few favorites, including ‘First Frost’.  He responded promptly, and after we had exchanged a couple of e-mails, asked if I would be willing to make a side-by-side comparison of ‘El Niño’ and ‘First Frost’ and write about my findings.  Still in the dark about his identity, the unique e-mail address, and a quick perusal of the internet, helped me put two and two together.  I replied to "Mr. What’s-in-a-Hosta-Name" with a slightly embarrassed but resounding “yes.”
   For an accurate comparison, it would be important to study ‘El Niño’ and ‘First Frost’ in close proximity, growing them under identical conditions.  Plants of the same age were purchased from a reliable nursery and planted four feet apart against a brick wall in a north-facing shade bed in my garden. 
   In late winter 2010, I received my first copy of The Hosta Journal.  I found it very beneficial to read Warren’s anniversary article regarding H. ‘Great Escape’ and H. ‘Blue Ivory’, which contained important information on ‘El Niño’ and ‘First Frost’.  My observations would focus on their leaf edge color and how it changed over the course of the growing season. 

   Anticipation mounted as spring approached, and on April 6th, 2010, ‘El Niño’ began showing pips with ‘First Frost’ emerging just a day or two later.  By April 16th, they were making serious headway, and ten days later, leaves began to unfurl.

'El Niño'

'First Frost'

4/23/2010

4/23/2010

4/26/2010

4/26/2010

 

Both hostas displayed yellow edges, but ‘First Frost’ revealed a more saturated color—a warm, lemon yellow.  By April 30th, each had open leaves and the difference in leaf edge color between the two was easily distinguishable. 

 

'El Niño' 'First Frost'
4/30/2010 4/30/2010
 

By May 2nd, a half dozen leaves had opened on each, and 'El Niño’s edges were a lovely, creamy white, while First Frost’s edges remained a cheery yellow.

 
'El Niño' 'First Frost'
5/2/2010 5/2/2010
 

With first leaves fully opened on May 5th, I could already identify that particular blue color on ‘First Frost’ and found it charming framed in the color of sunshine.  In the freshness of spring, ‘El Niño’ boasted soft teal leaf centers, which were also very appealing.

 
'El Niño' 'First Frost'
5/5/2010 5/5/2010
 

Noting a definite green misting on one of the larger leaves of ‘El Niño’, I determined to watch and see if it would remain or fade over time.  I saw no misting on the leaves of ‘First Frost’ and the colorful tint of its leaf edges persisted.

 
'El Niño' 'First Frost'
5/5/2010 5/5/2010
 

As spring forged ahead, so did the deer.  Entering my front yard from the cul de sac, they sought a bit of breakfast on their way back to the woods.  Out came the deer repellant, and off came some of the lovely wax that gives ‘El Niño’ and ‘First Frost’ their sultry viridian hue.  Sprinkled and spotted, but still intact, ‘El Niño’ showed off creamy white edges, with no hint of yellow, while ‘First Frost’ continued to display a golden glow, now moving toward chartreuse.

 
'El Niño' 'First Frost'
5/29/2010 5/29/2010
 

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