Why settle for a boring lettuce salad or the same ol' side dish when you could forage for a delicacy that might be growing right in your yard?
Hostas, those versatile shade-loving plants that are part-and-parcel of urban and suburban landscapes alike, are actually edible. And not in a post-apocalyptic-we-have-to-survive way. Hostas are a delicacy that can be harvested and prepared without much fuss, adding both a healthy dose of interest and a spate of vitamins and minerals to the dinner table.
A Brief History of Hostas as Food
Hostas are a broad-leafed perennial native to East Asia, where they still grow wild in shaded forests. The plant is well-documented in Chinese and Japanese history as far back as 206 B.C.E. In the 1830s, hostas were imported to Europe and reached American shores shortly thereafter. Today, at least 45 different hosta species have been recognized and new cultivars are regularly introduced.
Hostas have striking broad-leaf foliage ranging from dark to light green, often featuring white, yellow or blue streaks. At maturity, hostas send up flowering seedpods of white, lavender or violet in a showy display, making the plant a popular addition to shaded landscapes for its beauty.
Although hostas are typically grown in the United States for ornamental purposes, they have been grown and harvested as a vegetable in Asian cultures for centuries. In Japan, for example, hostas are considered a type of sansai, which is a broad term used to describe wild plants that can be harvested from the country's mountainous regions. Hostas are not only tasty but also provide a significant amount of vitamins and minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper and iron.
How to Harvest and Prepare Hostas
There are a number of edibles that can be foraged from urban and wild landscapes, including fiddlehead ferns and morel mushrooms, but the hosta may have them beat for sheer availability. If you don't have hostas growing in your yard, odds are that someone you know has hostas — or you can seek them out in the wild where they thrive at the shady boundaries of tree-lined land. The good news is that, unlike mushrooms, all types of hostas are edible and considered safe to eat.
Watch for hostas in early spring when they start sending up thick shoots, which will vary in height and thickness depending on the plant. Using a sharp knife, cut the shoots at ground level. The shoots should still be tightly wound, which means they haven't yet opened their leaves. Don't worry that you'll harm the plant; it will simply send up a second round of shoots.
Upon inspection, you may notice the cut end of a hosta shoot looks rather like a leek. Try a bite of a raw hosta shoot and you may find that it reveals a pleasant onion-adjacent flavor. However, the interesting thing about hostas is that this flavor profile will vary from plant to plant, with some leaning more toward asparagus. Add the shoots raw to any meal. Steam or boil the shoots, fry them in a bit of butter to caramelize the natural sugars or pickle them for a snappy addition to salads. In general, hostas are great for any recipe in which you'd use a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli.
If you missed the opportunity to cut and eat hosta shoots in early spring, you can wait for the leaves to unfurl, then harvest the leaves and substitute them for spinach or other greens. Likewise, you can watch for hostas to bloom in the mid to late summer, then cut the blossoms from the stem. The blossoms are typically sweet and floral. The blossoms can be added raw to salads or lightly breaded and pan-seared for a taste akin to squash blossoms.
Now That's Interesting
Hostas are safe for people to ingest, but not for pets. Hostas contain saponins, which can cause vomiting and diarrhea in dogs and cats. Although the symptoms are mild and usually pass within 24 hours, the repercussions depend on how much hosta the pet has eaten and may require veterinary attention.
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