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Frances Williams Hosta – 1960s Renaissance

Categories:Hosta Perennials

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Frances Williams is a seedling from my second favorite hosta, Sieboldiana ‘Elegans’. My favorite hosta, by the way, is Sum and Substance. Frances Williams was one of the first variegated hostas and is widely credited with the resurgence of interest in hostas in the 1960s, a quarter-century after discovery by its namesake, Frances Williams.

Frances Williams was a landscape architect who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She discovered a promising and unusual variegated hosta in 1936 at Bristol Nurseries in Bristol, Connecticut. Interestingly, Bristol Nurseries had a long and storied history in its own right in the development of plant hybrids, especially chrysanthemums. Here is a catalog of their offerings from 1931 (biodiversitylibrary.org).

Hosta Francis Williams
Hosta Frances Williams

Originally called Aureomarginata and ‘Yellow Edge’ (Arnold Arboretum, 1970), the cultivar was renamed in honor of Frances Williams by George Robinson. Williams had sent a cutting (number FRW383) to Robinson in the early 1960’s. At the time, Robinson was superintendent at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden (Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, February 1963). He referred to the cutting as Frances Williams in lectures and thus cutting FRW383 came to be known informally by the name of the woman who discovered the cultivar a quarter-century before. Williams’s daughter, Constance, officially registered the hosta in her mother’s name in 1986.

Any cultivar still in demand eighty years after its discovery must have a lot going for it, and Frances Williams certainly does. That said, it’s not a perfect hosta. Frances Williams has a slightly maddening quality of the margins turning brown some years.

Certainly, there are newer hostas with perhaps better qualities. However…

The painterly leaves exhibit the heavily corrugated, crinkled leaves that many us treasure in our hostas. I cannot overstate how much I love big hostas with puckered leaves and Frances Williams certainly displays this character. It grows to four feet or so over a period of five years.

In the garden, I prefer hosta in terra cotta pots. I’m cooler towards hostas planted in the ground.

I love huge hosta with big puckered leaves planted in pots as focal points or specimens. I’m also not against a hosta tucked strategically in the garden soil. Many hosta lovers are collectors, with their focus on planting and loving a number of different varieties. This leads to planting one specimen (or three) of each cultivar in a hosta bed, a bed specifically dedicated to hosta. I have zero problems with this and celebrate anyone who loves hosta to the point of dedicating entire beds to the species. However, if you don’t happen to be a hosta lover of such commitment I recommend you find yourself a big hosta and grow it in a large terra cotta pot.

hosta sagae terra cotta pot
Hosta Sagae grown in 22″ terra cotta pot.

The leaves of Frances Williams and Sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ do not take on the heavily puckered form until the plant is several years old. I’ve noticed that both cultivars are prone to minor burning along leaf margins in spring, especially if placed in an area where the overhead canopy has yet to fill in. Consulting with other sources suggests that both Williams and ‘Elegans’ simply do not have much tolerance at all for sun.

hosta leaf burn
Hosta Sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ leaf detail. Leaf burn typical of both Frances Williams and Sieboldiana in early spring. This area is protected from sun from late Spring to Fall, but the canopy above had not sufficiently filled in. The plant will need to be moved to a better location prior to next season.
Genus/speciesHosta sieboldiana ‘Frances Williams’
Common name(s)Hosta ‘Frances Williams’
Of noteHistorically important cultivar in the hosta world, still in great demand even with habit of burning easily.
Water requirementsaverage fine, but all hostas grow best with plenty of moisture
Soil qualityrich, well-drained, average
Suggested use(s)My favorite use is in terra cotta pots. I’m cooler towards hosta planted in gardens.
Hardiness zone(s)3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b – Frances Williams pefers cooler climates but does fine in the Deep South to at least 8a.
Typeherbaceous perennial
Nativeno
Invasiveno
Deer resistantno
Deciduous or evergreendeciduous
Flower colorwhite, but who grows hosta for their flowers?
Bloom periodmid spring – Frances Williams flowers early
Exposurea little morning sun and shade the rest of the day best

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