The temperature was 90 degrees outside when I rolled into Arthur Mraz’s dooryard Sunday afternoon, but it was 10-15 degrees cooler in the shaded yard surrounding his home in Fort Fairfield. It was even cooler in his house. He had opened a window to let in the warm air from outside.
It was this shade that inspired the gardens I had come to see. I eagerly accepted Art’s invitation: “Let’s go look at some hostas.”
Now, I have a few hostas in my yard, but a tour through the Mraz gardens, narrated by their owner, gives new meaning to the word “variety.” I learned that hostas are distinguished by the size, shape, color and texture of the leaves, as well as the color, height, bloom time, shape and fragrance of the blossoms. Hosta growers observe whether a leaf is cupped, twisted, folded, wavy, corrugated or flat and whether its top and bottom surfaces are dull or shiny. There’s more, but you get the idea.
Art, age 88, explains that his fascination with hostas began 50 years ago when he was vice president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle and his wife, Ruth Reed Mraz, was director of university relations. They were looking for plantings that would thrive in shade and received a few hostas from Ronald Dow, English professor, humanities department chairman and avid hosta grower.
”I have to give credit to Ron Dow for getting me started,” Art said. “It is so shady here. We only get between one and three hours of sun in a day.” Shade-loving hostas were the answer to the Mrazs’ desire for foliage around their home overlooking Monson Pond.
Today, he has nearly 400 varieties planted in about 18 gardens, and he is still expanding. Last year, he planted a new garden containing 90 plants. In the last two weeks, he planted a garden containing between 50 and 60 plants.
Even though he cannot actually see them, Art recites the names of plant after plant as he leads me along walkways between gardens and across patios surrounded by gardens. His vision has failed, but he knows where each one is planted and points to them with his hand-carved, Native American walking stick.
“Frances William, Aurora Borealis, Geisha.”
I learn that hostas bear blossoms between late June and early August, but the distinguishing features of the broad leaves last all summer. Art picks a leaf and shows me the curled stalk that channels water directly to the plant’s root. We move on.
“Whirlwind, Praying Hands, Josephine, Striptease, Devon Green, Rascal.”
We stop by a bed where a plant with bright yellow leaves contrasts its dark-leafed neighbor. In another garden, a tiny variety grows next to larger ones.
“You can do all kinds of things with them — explore, experiment, have fun,” he said, pointing to plants named Chariots of Fire, Athena, Montana, Guardian Angel, Watermelon Pie, Robin Hood and Paul’s Glory.
After Ruth Reed Mraz died in 2008, Ronald Dow created a new variety of hosta named for her and presented it to Art at his wife’s memorial service. It was a year old at the time. This year, the plant has matured enough to be submitted for registration with the American Hosta Society. Art is preparing an application to be mailed to the Hosta Registrar in Fairfax Station, Va., along with photographs of the plant showing leaf detail. If it is accepted, information on the Ruth Reed Mraz hosta will be published in The Hosta Journal and the plant will be “established.”
Art leads me to the Ruth Reed Mraz hosta, planted near Watermelon Pie, from which Dow took the seeds to create the new variety. Art has one task to perform before submitting the registration form. He must establish the viability of the seed by successfully growing a plant from seeds taken from one of the plant’s blossoms. When the seeds are dry in the pods, he will put them in a pan with a little soil and water and hope they germinate.
We cross the driveway, lined on both sides with a border of hostas, into a garden watched over by a small, angelic figurine.
“Patriot, Friar Tuck, El Nino, Halcyon, Blue Wedgewood, Blue Mouse Ears, Seducer, Empress Wu, Peacock Strut.”
Art shows me a label for the American Hero and explains that 25 cents from each plant sold is donated to help landscape veterans’ homes. As we move on, he notes that some names indicate a plant belongs to a series of hostas: the American series, the Regal series, the Lakeside series, each containing numerous varieties.
Then we move into the house and I learn how a nearly blind person can not only complete the paperwork to register a hosta, but also perform countless other tasks using a computer with a giant screen and a voice that reads what is on it. Art goes to the file containing photos of the Ruth Reed Mraz hosta and enlarges one to show the detail required by the American Hosta Society. But then, he can’t resist showing me how he can read his email, check the stock market, get the day’s news and access the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
He leans back in his chair and smiles. “I’m having fun,” he says.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.