In 2008 variegated hostas made up 8 of the top 10 and 17 of the top 25 hostas according to the American Hosta Society members’ rankings.
Variegated hostas have white, cream or yellow in their leaves that may look like solid patterns, blotches or stripes. Marginate variegation is when variegation occurs on the margin of the hosta’s leaves. “Medio variegation” is when variegation is in the center of the hosta’s leaves.
Causes of Hosta Variegation
Hosta variegation is caused by mutations of cells in one or more of the layers of the leaf. This is caused by variations in organelles within the plant cells, which are called “plastids.” Plastids contain different colored pigments and largely determine the color of leaves. Chloroplasts containing chlorophyll are green. Plastids can also be orange, red, yellow, brown, whitish to colorless. When a mutation occurs, the normal ratio of plastids is rearranged. Some colors become more abundant, and the leaf takes on a variegated look.
Not all hosta mutations are stable (they can revert back to their previous pre-mutated state, or they can continue mutating). An unstable mutation can be affected by environmental factors like sunlight and fast growth, which can change the quantity and proportion of plastids in the cells. For example, white variegated hostas have minimal amounts of chlorophyll In full sun the chlorophyll levels can increase and cause the leaves to pick up a green cast and appear less variegated. This phenomenon is especially noticable in H. ‘Heart and Soul’.
A sport is when a hosta will actually mutate into a different leaf color pattern. For example, a yellow hosta may sport to a yellow center with a green edge. Hostas are relatively genetically unstable which creates an increased opportunity for sports. Over half of the new hosta varieties introduced on the market today are sports. Hosta enthusiasts should watch for new sports which might be new introductions to the hosta world and possibly earn royalties. Yellow hosta varieties can have increased color intensity in brighter light and a softer color in deeper shade. Increased sunlight changes the plastids into the type containing chlorophyll, which changes the leaf color to more green. Hostas with a streaked white center can produce green leaves with a white margin. Hostas with whitish or pale leaves may darken into shades of green when exposed to more sunlight.
If you wish to reduce the possibility of your hostas changing color, choose varieties with well-defined leaf patterns. Less stable hostas can revert back to their original parents. If a solid green division appears in your clump, remove the division immediately so that the clump will remain a variegated plant.
Variegated Hostas and Sun
Without enough sunlight, white-centered hostas can be difficult to grow because they lack chlorophyll in the main portion of the leaf. In more sun, the green portion of the leaf can often produce the extra food needed for the hosta to thrive.
Some white variegation hostas can tolerate full sun without burning. Generally, a hosta with thicker leaves can tolerate more intense light. White variegated hostas with thin leaves should be restricted to partial shade, bright shade, or early morning or evening sun to look their best. Direct sun exposure is often too intense for the white variegated hostas and may cause them to burn or turn brown, which isn’t harmful but can certainly make the plant unsightly. Hostas transplant easily, so you can always move them to another location.
Learn more about the affect sunlight has on all hostas at our Hostas and Sunlight page.
Variegated Hostas in Garden Design
Variegated hosta focal point in landscape
White variegated hostas stand out as single specimens, focal points or in groups because of their contrast.
Variegated varieties may require more planning to blend into your garden. As with all brightly variegated plants, they look best when contrasted against a dark background. Color accents emphasize beautiful foliage patterns. White flowers make white-variegated leaves look sharper, and yellow flowers make the yellow variegation on hostas look brighter. Variegated hostas with white or cream margins combined with white flowering plants can look especially beautiful in the evening light. Try not to place too many variegated hostas in close proximity because often they ‘drown’ each other out.
Two hostas that are close together should complement each other. Consider putting a solid-colored hosta next to a variegated hosta that is similar in color. For example, place a yellow hosta next to a yellow-variegated hosta, a green hosta next to a green-and-white-variegated hosta, and a blue hosta next to a blue and yellow hosta. Avoid planting a bold, white-variegated hosta near a solid yellow or yellow variegated hosta as the bright colors will compete. Plant them away from each other and surround them with green or blue hostas and other plants with soothing colors and foliage.