Variegated Plants- Pattern Foliage

by Don Statham

appeared winter issue 2009


The first variegated plant that I noticed and had to have was Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima.’ This elegant shrub has the most delicate three-inch paper-like leaves that taper to a fine point edged in creamy white. When the plant drops its leaves in fall a red-twigged frame emerges and looks terrific in winter, which makes it a great plant year-round. Variegated foliage with their beautiful splashes of color, edgings, veining, mottling and marbling expand the palette of the gardener.  The subtle variations of bold pattern make these plants some of the most exciting in the garden.

Variegated plants are plants with different colored areas in the leaves, and sometimes the stems of plants. This may be due to a number of causes. Variegated plants came about as chance variegated shoots on a green plant or among seedlings. Plant breeders focused on these mutations and created new varieties. Sometimes the variegated pattern that appeared was the result of a virus, such as with the streaked colors found in tulips. Yellow and white variegation represent low levels or an absence of chloroplast. A yellow- or white-centered leaf with green edges has a defective inner layer of cells. When the “malformations” of pink red or russet appear in variegated pattern it is the plant’s way of protecting the new growth from harsh ultraviolet rays. What appeared initially as a blemish is harnessed and highlighted by plant breeders to create something beautiful.

By placing a variegated plant next to a green plant both plants are more defined. The variegated plant provides light and color over a long period of time. The more I garden, the more I prefer foliage to flowers because it is the constant thing we see. Unlike perennials that tend to bloom for 10 days or so, the plant that is placed in the garden for its leaves offers the gardener a wider, more constant palette in which to work. The word “variegated” comes from the Latin root varius, meaning various.

In the book Variegated Plants: The Encyclopedia of Patterned Foliage by Susan Conder, the author lists over 700 variegated plants from tender annuals and biannuals to ornamental shrubs and trees. I expect that the number of variegated plants has doubled since the book came out. You can hardly visit a nursery today and not see each species with several variegated varieties. After 20 years of gardening, I use a tremendous amount of variegated plants and it is in fact much harder to find plants with straight dark green foliage. There is a large selection in the mid-green to gray-green area, but I think to really show off a variegated plant to its best, you need to place dark green plants next to it such as Taxus (yew), Iris pseudacorus-flag iris, Rhamnus-buckthorn, Ligustrum (privet), and Euphorbia ‘Robbie.’ All of these plants have nice deep green leaves or needles that make the variegated plant stand out.

I recently made a “moon garden, with borders comprised of white flowers and variegated and grey leaf plants ― everything pale ― to catch the light of the moon. Many of the plants that are mentioned in this article were selected for this garden; for example, Fallopia japonica ‘variegata.’ This variegated variety of Japanese knotweed is the tamed version of a plant that is seen growing rampantly along roadsides. From everything I have read this plant may be considered somewhat invasive in the southern states, but here in the north it appears to be less so. The foliage is splashed in white with red stems and is hardy to zone 5. It has not wintered over in my garden, but I have a feeling that it is very tough. We had so much rain this June and July that springs opened up under several borders and I was losing plants that had done well previously. I ended up planting Fallopia in one of the wet areas and so far it is flourishing in the soggy site. Besides being able to withstand wet soils Fallopia does well both in full sun and partial shade. Here in the north you can expect it to reach 3 by 3 feet.

The next plant has been on my wish list for several years now. When I saw it this spring I grabbed as many as I could take. They had only recently been potted up so my plants were still small and had yet to flower at the end of August. Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ has striking white variegated foliage. It will reach 3 feet tall and is hardy to zone 4. It originated in 1993 in a tray of seedlings propagated by a hellebore breeder. Normally, this sort of freak seedling would have ended up on the compost pile; however, on a whim the plant breeder placed them in her own garden and forgot about them until it was noticed by another plant breeder. Eventually the plant was named ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ after the extinct Australian thylacine whose striped back is similar in the white pattern. Successful propagation has ensured worldwide distribution of ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ in the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Aralia elata ‘variegata’ (Japanese Angelica-tree) is considered either a deciduous suckering shrub or small tree reaching a height of 10 feet and width between 6 to 10 feet. The leaves are up to 4 feet long by 2 feet wide composed of bi- or tri-pinnate alternate. It blooms in July to August and does well either in full sun or some shade. Like most large leaf plants it should be planted out of the way of strong winds. Angelica-tree is still considered a collector’s plant as it remains commercially hard to find, but you can order it online from a mail order company such as Forest Farm out of Oregon. The variegated forms are grafted onto the species. I planted my first Aralia in early spring and shortly after planting we were hit with a hard frost. All of the grafts fell off and what emerged was the common green variety. It was an expensive plant that cost me about $160 for a 3 to 4 foot plant. It took me a few years to decide to purchase another one. This time I waited until mid summer to plant it and it is still thriving, having survived many a winter. What I like about this plant is that it although it looks tropical it is in fact hardy to zone 4. This tree makes a great specimen and deserves its own spot in the garden.

On a whim I bought Acanthopanax sieboldianus ‘Variegatus’ (five leaf Aralia). I like interesting foliage and had seen this plant in many garden books. But I had not seen it for sale in nurseries until I stumbled upon it. Happily, it is now available in many nurseries. This deciduous shrub is related to ivy and a plant called Fatsia. During Victorian times the plant was introduced from China and was originally grown in greenhouses for its beautiful foliage. In the variegated form the leaflets are irregularly edged with a creamy white band. I noticed that the same plant in a friend’s garden planted in full sun was whiter than the soft yellow color of mine which receives only direct morning light. I have read that the plant will reach a height of 7 feet but I have my doubts here in the north. My plant seems to creep along the ground reaching a height of about 2 feet but it has spread to about 4 feet.

I planted a yellow twigged dogwood, Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold,’ near my pond, and over several years a large clump of wild New York State blue asters appeared alongside the variegated shrub. Though the combination happened by chance, this is a combination I will purposely plant in future designs. Variegated pattern often will enhance the shape of certain plants; for example, the striped pattern on irises reiterates the verticality of the leaves much more then the plain green variety.

Some of the other variegated plants I have in my garden include: Brunnera-False Forget-Me-Not, Daphne, Epimedium-Barrenwort, Hosta-Plantain Lily, Heuchera-Coral Bells, Iris Pallida-Variegated Sweet Iris, Lamium-Spotted Dead Nettle, Petasites-Butterbur, Salix-Willow, Salvia– Sage, Polygonatum commutatum-Solomon’s Seal, Thymus-Thyme, Yucca, and Acer-maple tree. This list is short compared with the variety of variegated plants that are out there.

If you don’t have any patterned foliage in your garden, winter is a good time to reflect on those areas that could use some lightening up; or you may want to figure out how you can weave several species of variegated plants through the garden to unify your overall planting.

2 Responses to Variegated Plants- Pattern Foliage

  1. I too, love variegated plants. Here is a fascinating article, a ‘Paradigm’ change:

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