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Nearly 15 years ago, Jan Harvey was tending the extensive shade garden behind her Menomonie home when she discovered a tiny streaked leaf at the edge of one of her hosta beds. Struck by its unique multi-colored markings, she protected her find with a wire covering and watched with great interest as each new leaf emerged with the same distinctive qualities of misting and streaking.

About 10 feet away from the new seedling was a clump of hostas called “Spilt Milk”, a well-known variety of streaked hosta Jan had added to her collection in 2000. She wondered if there was a chance that the notoriously difficult-to-grow Spilt Milk might be the foundling’s pod parent.

In 2008, Jan’s unnamed seedling won a contest held by the Northern Wisconsin Hosta Society of which she is a member. As her discovery continued to thrive, she considered naming and registering the new plant with the American Hosta Society. Wanting to include “milk” in the moniker and knowing that the plant would be smaller than the likely parent, Jan considered the name “Milk Dud” but took her friend and fellow Stepping Stones’ garden tour committee member Denise Skinner’s suggestion of “Milkmaid” instead.

A rare breed

Attempting to positively identify Milkmaid’s origins several years ago, Jan contacted Steven Chamberlain, science editor of The Hosta Journal (THJ), who had written several articles about hybridizing and had declared at the time, that “Spilt Milk never produces a streaked seedling.”

She sent a photo of Milkmaid to him with the message, “I can’t prove that this is from Spilt Milk because it was an open-pollinated seedling, but I believe it is.”

Chamberlain definitely agreed. A couple of years later he published another THJ article about hosta streaking and stabilization in which he repeated his claim about Spilt Milk, while adding the caveat that “some people”, however, had experienced success.

“It was a total accident,” Jan said about her now-registered treasure. “I just found one little leaf that looked streaked like Spilt Milk.”

Hosta history

Known as the “queen of the shade garden,” hostas were brought to the United States in the mid-1800s from northeast Asia. More than 6,000 varieties have been registered by the American Hosta Society. Although she admits she’s lost track over the years, Jan estimates that her beloved garden is home to about 300 varieties.

“The differences can be very subtle,” Jan said. About Milkmaid, she noted: “There aren’t a whole lot like this one. And now as this plant is maturing, there’s a whole bunch more blue and yellow streaks in it … and it’s getting more ruffled around the edges all the time, too.

“Most plants come true to seed – the baby plant looks like the parent plant – but the majority of hostas don’t, so every seedling is different. That’s why there are so many of them,” Jan added. “Most of them are green or yellow or blue – plain. When one comes along that’s got something unusual, that’s how we get these fancy ones.”

It was a plain green lancifolia that sparked her love affair with hostas back in her college days in Eau Claire. A long row was growing alongside her apartment and a friend was still living there when Jan got married.

“I decided I was going to plant a garden at my first house,” she said. “I went down there and dug up one of the lancifolia. And it’s still in my garden. I’ve moved it with me everywhere I’ve lived ever since.”

Successful reproduction

In July 2012, Jan attended the Midwest Hosta Society’s convention in Rochester, Minn. Armed with photos and a precious cutting of one of Milkmaid’s leaves, she talked with the owner of Naylor Creek Nursery in Chimacum, Wash. who was very interested in taking the hosta to tissue culture.

Tissue culture can be likened to cloning in which tiny sections are taken of the “parent” plant. The sections are injected with growth stimulants and grown in test tubes. If successful, the tissue cultured plants will then be grown and marketed.

“Before horticulturists devised tissue culture … you could only replicate an existing hosta by dividing it,” Jan explained. Her Milkmaid had five divisions, three of which she sent via Fed Ex to the nursery right away, keeping the remaining two original stock for herself.

One of the issues with some streaked hostas, Jan pointed out, is that their distinctive markings aren’t always stable. Instead they’ll revert to the familiar green color with streaks only on the edge of the leaves which need to be culled in order to maintain the original streaking.

“Milkmaid stays stable – and that’s what makes her desirable,” Jan said.

In fact, after Milkmaid began to be marketed in 2015, the folks at Naylor Creek told her, “She’s a great plant to work with; she tissue cultured very well, and there’s little variation in the variegation [streaking].”

Jan said that after Milkmaid was on the market for a couple of years, the well-known hosta grower wrote to her: “This is one of the very best plants we have come out with in 25 years.”

Naylor Creek’s praise was echoed in a 2018 THJ article by Jack Barta of Cedarburg. He included Milkmaid in a list of hostas that have sold well for him in the last few years, describing her as “a medium/small look-alike for Spilt Milk. It has the misting and actually grows. It will stand out in your garden.”

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Barbara Lyon is the development and communications specialist for Stepping Stones of Dunn County. She can be reached at development@steppingstonesdc.org.

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