I Can’t Stop Planting Varieties With Variegated Leaves

Ilona Erwin

Variegation can produce some gorgeous effects in the garden and we instinctively know that by the way our eyes and hearts are drawn to these “color freaks” in the garden centers.

Variegation is the effect of two different colors in the leaves and stems of plants, it occurs very rarely in nature. Variegated plants are chimerasin botany: usually single organisms composed of two genetically different types of tissue.. Mutations consisting of the loss of the chloroplasts, with a resulting difference in color is the cause of most variegation.

That is the scientific explanation, but the explanation for why we love them in our gardens so much is another type of story.

Of professional garden designers, some love them and some hate them, but most of us want at least a few of these accents in our garden. My vote is for a number of these visually captivating plants to find a place in the garden.

Lovely accents

Ivies have a variety of looks, Iris is striking example.

It must be said, right off the bat, that too many variegated plants ruin the scene. It is too much of a good thing. So, exercise some restraint in their use for best effects.

However, there is something so fascinating about the detailed look of variegated contrasts that they are always sought after.

The mutation which gives the look of two and three tones is often the result of a loss of the food making machinery of the plant’s leaves ( cholorplasts). This results in the variegated plant being weaker than a solid green plant of the same type.

Not all variegation has the same cause, however.
There are blister variegations, which reflect light differently, and those caused from masking by other pigments.

Variegated markings can come in spots and irregular splotches, in trimming as prim as scalloping, and everything in between, it seems. All sorts of plants can mutate into a variegated form, and when they do, gardeners take note, and clones are made. Most variegated plants are reproduced vegetatively (but not all!)

It is often the case that a variegation not only looks better in a shadier spot, but thrives better there. Plants can get sunburned and variegated plants are the fair skinned tribe of the botanical world. It really depends on where your property is located, and southern climes have more intense sun than northern ones. Be sure to check the growing information on the particular plant choice.

Design Tips for Variegated Plants

Contrasting with solid colored plants -The contrast of solid colors, the deeper the better, gives definition to the variegation of a plant. Like a piece of art upon a wall, the more wall space surrounding it, the more the focus will be on the central piece.
Repeated at intervals to give a cohesive pattern to the design of your landscape – It is very pleasing to see a repeated pattern in a garden. It allows the plant groups to make sense to the human eye. It gives a sense of order so that there is no confusion from looking at too many competing things at once. It becomes a fabric, a tapestry of plants, rather than a disjointed jumble of a little of everything. This is more important when the foliage has its own patterns.

Think about patterned fabrics – When you were little you loved to mix and match all sorts of outlandish patterns together, the brighter the better for some little ones. A new gardener can be like that with all the variegated coleus, ivies, shrubs, and even trees. They just have the joy of seeing all that bright mass before their eyes. But there is a sort of tummy ache that comes with all the candy, and eye candy is no different. Think about putting together an outfit you would like to wear, now transfer that ability to your garden plans. Voila.

Containers can break the rules – Concentrated together and displayed against blank spaces of wall or hedge or lawn, the containers can get away with more color and variegated plants in proximity. Similar colors with very different shape and texture can work well, or strongly contrasting with big elements can work together. I like to study recipes and use the concepts to create something with different plants… try that for your own design using variegated plants. Look at and note pleasing plantings that others have created with variegated plants.

Some Of My Favorite Plants Are Variegated

It is not our imagination that these plants are beautiful, they are. And there are some that I think make a garden, that is, create the necessary interest to make the garden something special.
Let me name a few for you:

  • Variegated Sedum. I gave this one a special plant profile because it is such a useful plant; there are a number of variegated sedums. Golden cream and light green
  • Brunnera, ‘Jack Frost’. This is newer to my garden and I am very taken with it. Silver and light green
  • Variegated Weigela. There are several of these. Good contrasting shrub with pretty spring flowers.
  • Hostas. There are so many of these in variegations of gold, white or cream against blue, golden. or green foliage.
  • Variegated Dogwoods (Cornus). The dogwood family of shrubs and trees seems to be given to mutating to create some lovely variations. I like a number of them. My dad grew C. ‘Elegantissima’ and it was a nice feature in his garden -long ago, now.
  • Golden Lemon Thyme – Several thymes are variegated with both golden and silver colors. I love them all, but I think the golden lemon thyme is the supreme one of the bunch.
  • English ivies come in many variegated forms
  • Lamium maculatum, ‘Beacon Silver’ – There are more than a few varieties of Lamium maculatum that have variegation. I like this one and ‘White Nancy’, but that is just the tip of the choice list- especially when adding in different Lamium types.

Those are my short list, but I absolutely love the types of variegations on geraniums (Pelargoniums) and Beech trees (Fagus). Yes, I confess that if I could I would people my garden with all of them, but my pocketbook, with a bit of my good sense to take my own advice keeps me from splashing my garden with too many of these plants of many colors.

Pots of variegated geranium cintrast with hinoki cypress evergreen shrub
Pots of variegated geranium contrast with Hinoki Cypress evergreen shrub

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.