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Base or primary leaf color is defined as the color that occupies at least 60% of the surface area of the plant. Secondary colors, usually involved with variegation, are those colors that occupy 40% or less of the surface area.

Variegation occurs on a plant when chlorophyll is either in a very low level or is missing entirely in a part of the plant tissue. When this occurs, the tissue will reflect either the yellow underlying color or the complete absence of pigment resulting in white color.

This color difference may appear in three locations on the leaf including leaf margins (Marginal), middle leaf (Medial) and variable pattern (Streaked or Splash).

Depending on the relative amounts or lack of chlorophyll or carotene (yellow) or other pigments, the color of the variegations according to The American Hosta Society would include:

  1. Greenish White

  2. Creamy White

  3. Pure White

  4. Green Speckling

  1. White Speckling

  2. Streaked with colors 1-5

  3. Mottled with colors 1-5

Perhaps the most common type of variegation in hostas occurs along the outside edge or margin of the leaf. There are hundreds and hundreds of hostas with either a white or yellow margin. The width of the margin may range from a very thin, almost undefined line to a very wide, dominating margin that covers up to 40% of the leaf surface.

As mentioned in the previous discussion of the layers of a hosta leaf, changes in the pigment cells i.e. plastids, in the L1 layer will often result in a change in color of the leaf margin.

When it comes to marginally variegated hostas, it appears that most people generally prefer those with wide, yellow margins to those with narrow, white edges.

Sometimes that layer of cells that runs down the center of the leaf is the one that loses its chlorophyll. Center variegation can vary in width from a sliver to a wide strip dominating the leaf blade and covering up to 40% of the surface. As mentioned in a previous section, there may be so much white that it covers 60% and becomes the base color.

In this situation, there is usually a change in the plastids of the L2 layer of the leaf.

Medially variegated hostas seem to be more popular with gardeners than those with marginal variegation. Unfortunately, some hostas with medial variegation are challenges to keep healthy and showy in the home garden. Those with very wide, white variegation are missing a lot of the green chlorophyll molecules. This results in leaves that have thin, tissue-like substance which is loved by slugs and easily scorched by too much sunlight in hot, dry summers. Also, lacking chlorophyll means the plant does not have the ability to grow as vigorously as its all green counterpart.

Streaked and splashed are the most often used terms to describe this color pattern but you might also hear stippled, flecked, marbled and misted used at times. This is the least common but, perhaps, the most intriguing form of hosta variegation.

Streaking occurs when random cells in the leaf lose their chlorophyll. The plastid cells that contain the color pigments have the ability to move between layers in the leaf which results in this random pattern of variegation.  This is the least stable form of variegation and in many cases, the plastids will migrate toward the margins or into the center where they stabilize.  The plant is then, of course, considered to be marginally or medially variegated. Or, plants may totally revert back to the original base color resulting in a green, blue-green or yellow plant. Several streaked cultivars such as H. 'Spilt Milk' or H. 'Sea Prize' will stabilize and stay streaked indefinitely.

When streaked forms of certain plants show up, they often sell for very high prices. Why? Because they are very valuable for use in hybridizing new hostas. More on that later.

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