By Mel Bellar
“Variegation is the appearance of differently coloured zones in the leaves, and sometimes the stems, of plants. Variegated leaves occur rarely in nature.” This statement comes straight out of Wikipedia, including the Brit spelling of colored which is weird because I think of Wikipedia as a “made in the USA” thing. Of course, variegation is not exclusively a plant term, but it would sound really weird to hear “I love your variegated shirt.” Webster’s definition is far more inclusive: “having discrete markings of different colors.” Anyway it is a good word which generally refers to leaves with 2 colors, but sometimes it can be 3. Any more (and I can’t think of an example) would be beyond variegation and more like multi-colored or just plain CRAZY.
I like variegated plants. They add interest to the garden, providing another element that can help break up the predominantly green background without having to depend on the ephemeral nature of flowers. Think of it as another color (like my beloved purple and gold foliage.) Many variegated plants do bloom and give you double bang for your buck, but the variegation in the foliage usually lasts all season unlike the fleeting blooms. Variegation occurs because the lack of chlorophyll in spots on the plant prevents photosynthesis. This is sometimes caused by cell mutation and sometimes by a virus. There are numerous theories and not that much information without going geekier than I care to, but I do know this: Variegated plants are not as strong and aggressive as their non-variegated relatives.
There are quite a number of variegated trees and shrubs in my garden, but only a few that I use with clients on a regular basis. I have a variegated Norway maple and an Aralia spinosa (Devil’s Walking Stick.) These are wonderful plants with some issues: The Norway maple is very cool but often reverts and the Aralia is amazing but suckers so terribly that I will never again plant it. Variegated Weigela is a very nice medium-sized shrub that has soft pink flowers in the late spring; I have planted this successfully in many locations. I have numerous well-loved dappled willow, which has foliage that contains pink, white and green striations in the Spring, fading to green and white in the summer. This willow, Salix integra “Hakuro Nishiki,” also called flamingo willow, is one that I use constantly and people love. It can be kept as a shrub with regular pruning, but can also be trained to be a standard (tree-like) version that can get very big. There are several native dogwoods with variegated varieties, including the variegated Pagoda dogwood called Golden Shadows which has a beautiful form, sporting its gold and green striped leaves. The native red– or yellow– twig dogwoods that are so prolific in our area, both have variegated cultivars, the most popular being Ivory Halo, which can be a beautiful addition to the garden with its green and white leaves and bright red twigs in the winter. The Kousa Dogwood also has an amazing variegated version called Wolf Eyes; it is a zone 5 tree and I haven’t tried it yet although I probably will soon. One more shrub I love is called Diervilla sessilifloria “Cool Splash;” it is a green and white version of the southern bush honeysuckle which I also love, but the variegated version does not sucker and spread like the species variety. I also have a variegated boxwood which sparkles as a focal point in my garden.
The real geeks even collect variegated conifers, of which there are many. Since they are not as robust as the plain Janes, there are not that many in our zone 4 neighborhood, but I still try. I have Pixie Dust Alberta spruce, a variegated spreading juniper (which has done well for 12 years at least) and a Goldilocks Japanese White Pine (the jury is still out on this one.) I am sure that there are many more that work well here that I haven’t tried.
There are too many variegated perennials to count, but I will mention a few. I barely count hostas, as there are very few non-variegated ones of any interest, but I do love many of the fancy variegated ones. However, the deer love them more than I do. These are all cool variegated perennials that I have in my garden and some that I use with clients: Phlox, obedient plant, Euphorbia (spurge), Solomon’s seal, iris, Lysimachia (loosestrife), perennial sunflower (Heliopsis “Lorraine Sunshine”), yucca and dead nettle (Lamiastrum/Lamium). Most of the coral bells are variegated and I love the simple proven winners like Plum Pudding and Palace Purple. From my experience, many of the fancy new cultivars get pretty wimpy over time. I want to mention this plant but it comes with a big warning. Houttuynia cordata Chameleon (Chinese Lizard-Tail, Variegated Fishwort, Tricolor Heartleaf) is a beautiful multi-colored (almost CRAZY) short plant that really spiffs up an area and adds a lot of color, but DO NOT plant it in a bed with good soil and moisture. It will completely take over and you will never be able to get rid of it. I put it in pots without holes, as it can live in water, or I put it in a very dry spot with terrible soil.
Wonderful grasses that are striped in one way or the other: Zebra or Porcupine (basically the same) grass dons unusual horizontal stripes and gets to a height of 6 to 8 feet; variegated maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis “Variegatus”) and many other maiden grass cultivars have vertical stripes, as does Overdam feather reed grass. There are numerous variegated sedges that really brighten up a shady area and provide a welcome new texture.
More on reversion: I revert to a bewildered seven-year old on a regular basis and many variegated plants put out new growth that has reverted to its non-variegated state. The beautiful variegated Norway maples do this fairly often. Many mutant plants like Alberta Spruce and dark-leaved ninebarks do this as well. Just cut it off and go on about your business.
Can you believe it? There is even a nursery that specializes in variegated plants:
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.