A Celebration of Variegation

Variegated plants. My mind immediately travel to Orange, NSW, mid 1990s. Mid-winter. A federation era brick cottage with a concrete pathway leading straight from street to front door, brown painted metal hand rail and brown frosted lawn on either side. A weeping cherry, bare, in the middle of the yard, and a variegated Aucuba japonica growing against the front wall of the house under the window. Its razzle-dazzle yellow-green leaves never quite looking at home. Tropicana in the temperate zone.

For a long time, perhaps because of the aucuba in Orange, I didn’t appreciate variegation. I wanted my plants green, sensible, strong. Solid colours, not wishy-washy bits of this and that. Things change, we grow up (mostly), and I’ve come to appreciate what leaf pattern and colour can do in the garden, and in the house. Variegated plants can add depth, contrast, and a whole lot of spark and energy. They’re like the sequins of the plant world. And we all know about wearing sequins, right? Use judiciously, sparingly, for a glittery yet elegant effect. Or go nuts. Wear a sequin jumpsuit and you’ll be the talk of the town. As on the body, so too in the garden.

Variegation is sort of mysterious. Loosing pigment in a leaf means a plant can’t use those cells for photosynthesis. So why would a plant variegate? There’s a theory that because insects generally have bad vision, when a plant variegates it looks like it’s already been eaten so the insect leaves it alone. Perhaps in some cases this might be more efficient for a plant than to not be variegated and generate more energy, but spend more energy growing new leaves after being attacked.

Whilst insects dont seem to like un-pigmented leaves, some humans certainly do. Variegated monsteras sell on Ebay for $990 a cutting! Monstera? Variegated? Cutting? What? It’s the indoor plant du jour, apparently. I have a monstera in our front garden. It’s a few meters wide, a few meters high. I’ve never once thought it would look better with variegated leaves. I still don’t, but in times like this, I wouldn’t mind a few splashes of white here and there.

Restraint can be spectacular, so too can pattern and colour and sequins and glitter. Perhaps it’s the combination of both excess and austerity that makes for the most interesting gardens, people, spaces?

Billbergia ‘Hallelujah’ at Barry Kable’s Capabalaba nursery.
Variegated aloe at Barry Kable’s Capabalaba nursery.

Discorea discolour at David Fripp and Blake Jolley’s Living Edge Nursery
Coadium variegatum in Sebastian di Mauro’s Brisbane garden.

“Every gardener nurses prejudices against certain plants or flowers. It is not a bad idea to examine our own, from time to time, and to decide whether they have sufficient validity to be taken to our graves.”

Christopher Lloyd
Hypoestes phyllostachya in Peter Watt’s Sydney backyard.
Begonia maculata in Peter Watt’s Sydney backyard.

Types of Variegation

Chimeral variegation occurs due to a genetic mutation where some tissue is unable to produce chlorophyll – meaning that white splotches grow randomly interspersed with green. Examples: Variegated monstera, philodendron, colocasia – all the so-hot-right-now indoor plants. The thing with chimeral variegation is that it’s not stable. Plants can revert to full green, and can only be propagated by cuttings from the variegated part of the plant, not seed.

Pattern variegation is an inherited genetic trait and means the variegation is stable. Plants like variegated geraniums, calatheas, bromeliads all are the result of pattern variegation. Most of these plants will have repeatable patterns on each leaf, not random. When these plants are reproduced by seed, the variegation will stick around.

Reflective or blister variegation is when the un-pigmented upper layer of the leaf is separated from the pigmented lower layer by an air pocket which reflects light and makes silver metallic patterns. These can be random dots or splotches or they might run along leaf veins or edges. Reflective variegation is part of a plant’s genetic makeup so these mad plants can be reproduced by seed, cuttings.

Pathogen variegation. Sometimes, as we know, viruses get in the way. Mosaic virus is a planty example. This can cause colour variegations in tissue. Variegated abutilon is the result of mosaic virus. Variegated hostas are also often the result of viral variegation.

Quesnelia marmorata ‘Tim Plowman’ in Barry Kable’s Capabalaba nursery.
Caladium bicolour cvs. at Phoebe Stephen’s Brisbane garden.
Begonia ‘Little Brother Montgomery’ at David Fripp and Blake Jolley’s Living Edge Nursery.

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