Variegation in plants can take many different forms, from stripes to streaks, bands, chevrons, blotches and spots. It’s important to pay close attention to these patterns to ensure resulting plant combinations are attractive.
Designing With Variegated Plants
Combining stripes, dots and blotches or non-compatible color combinations creates a kaleidoscopic, unnatural look. Remember to exercise restraint and focus on plants with similar color variations and patterns, as well as like or compatible forms and textures.
In the shade garden, plants with significant white, cream and yellow variegated foliage reflect light. Consider using drifts of variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum ‘Variegatum’), variegated Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), variegated sedges (Carex spp.) and persicaria such as ‘Painter’s Palette’. Similarly, green foliage infused with silver, such as that found on the many heucheras, lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.) and Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’), not only reflects daylight but also moonlight.
A silvery-leaved ‘Jack Frost’ Siberian bugloss (center) and a green-and-white variegated hosta.
For four-season color, try variegated evergreens. The eye-catching ‘Gold Coast’ juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Gold Coast’), Sunkist cedar (Thuja occidentalis ‘Sunkist’), and the silver-needled ‘Pimoko’ Serbian spruce (Picea omorika ‘Pimoka’) add charm, especially in the winter. The white, cream and soft-pink foliage colors also impart a tranquil mood.
To create transitions between groups of differently colored plants, variegated foliage does the job. The eye is first attracted to the pattern and then moves to the single color masses on the flanks.
Variegated comfrey in the foreground with a bit of variegated leaved geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ showing to its right and variegated hosta ‘Sum it Up’ in the background.
Lots of Choices
When looking for variegated plants, there is certainly no shortage of choices. Here are some of my favorites:
The popular Euonymus fortunei cultivars, including ‘Emerald Gaiety’ (green with white edges), ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ (green with gold edges), ‘Gold Tip’, ‘Sunspot’ and ‘Surespot’. These adaptable plants can be used as ground covers or trained to climb trees, trellises, light poles and statue bases.
Variegated Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) such as ‘Butterfly’ (white, green and pink), ‘Shirazz’ (multi-colored pinks, greens and creamy white) and ‘Beni Shichihenge’ (bluish-green leaves with white margins infused with pinkish orange).
Full-sun loving variegated perennials and ornamental grasses, including variegated horseradish (Armoracia rusticana ‘Variegata’), ‘Loraine Sunshine’ heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Loraine Sunshine’), tricolor sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Tricolor’), variegated maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’) and bulbous oat grass (Arrhenatherum bulbosum ‘Variegatum’).
Dogwoods such as ‘Golden Shadows’ (Cornus alternifolia ‘Golden Shadows’), with its golden-edged leaves, the wedding cake tree (C. controversa 'Variegata’), with its tiered branches and silver-variegated leaves, and the very popular ‘Wolf’s Eye’ Chinese flowering dogwood (C. kousa ‘Wolf Eye’), with its white-margined foliage.
A variegated Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa var. chinensis ‘Akatsuki’)
Spectacular variegated ‘Star Showers’ Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia ‘Star Showers’). This vine is striking when planted with its all-green parent species.
Tri-colored variegated hostas featuring subtle pink, green and white or cream coloration.
Other trees such as the spectacular tri-color beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Roseo-Marginata’), ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ dappled willow (Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’), variegated hedge maple (Acer campestre ‘Carnival’) and ‘Eskimo Sunset’ maple (Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Eskimo Sunset’).
Tropical plants and annuals that display a kaleidoscope of tri- and multi-colors. Examples include coleus, impatiens, calla lilies, cannas, New Zealand flax (Phormium spp.) and ornamental kale.
For those with smaller urban gardens, it’s worth noting that many variegated species grow more slowly and exhibit smaller leaves than their all-green counterparts.
The dappled leaves of the ‘Eskimo Sunset’ maple
Not Without Some Reservations
Many variegated plants are mutants or so-called “sports”, meaning a genetic mistake has occurred that affects the plant’s green pigment. In the case of white and cream mutations, it’s decreased production of chlorophyll (the molecule vital to photosynthesis that absorbs sunlight to produce the plant’s food and green color). This makes them attractive to slugs and snails and subject to foliar sunburn, dry-out and hail damage. Remedies include relocating the plants to more favorable sites and investigating slug-control methods. Also, learn how to propagate your own plant favorites to ensure you have replacements on hand.
Variegation can also be the result of a variety of viral diseases, environmental stresses or mineral deficiencies (for example, yellowing due to lack of iron and magnesium). Sometimes these mutants and environmentally-altered plants can exhibit changing variegations and even reversion to their species’ original colors. I have experienced this, which is most disappointing considering its effect on your garden’s design. If you detect changes, simply remove the offender. My friend Marnie Wright, who supplied the photos for this article, has many variegated plants in her Bracebridge, Ontario, garden. She advises carefully checking plant labels and nursery catalogs to determine which plants may change their colors throughout the growing season.
The yellow and green leaves of yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus ‘Variegata’) are variegated in spring and turn all green during the summer.
Another consideration is the high price of some newly introduced variegated plants. This is because many are the result of vegetative reproduction as opposed to seed propagation. Don’t despair; the price will drop as growers respond to demand and other new varieties come into favor.
Finally, not all variegated plants are timid and weaker performers. In fact, some can be downright thuggish. Take for example the very colorful chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata) with its decorative white, green and pinkish-red coloration and the white-and-green variegated goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’). These plants are rampant spreaders in a variety of habitats, and root restrainers are recommended. Others I wasn’t sure about, but which turned out to be well behaved in my garden are the giant variegated fleece flower (Fallopia japonica ‘Variegata’), ‘Painter’s Palette’ persicaria (Persicaria virginiana‘Painter’s Palette’) and the showy variegated lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis ‘Albostriata’). I would note that I’m careful to deadhead the seed heads of many variegated plants, knowing that they will not likely come true from seed.
While growing variegated plants has some negatives, there is no question that they are striking plants for the shade garden. They are certainly worthy of a second look.
The leaves of the variegated masterwort (Astrantia major ‘Sunningdale Variegated’) display creamy yellow edgings in the spring and change to all green by summer.
Text by Frank Kershaw
Photos by Marnie Wright
Frank Kershaw is an award-winning horticulturist with more than 40 years of experience.
Marnie Wright is a lifelong gardener, writer and passionate garden photographer. Her Rocksborough Garden, developed over 30 years, is located in Bracebridge, Ontario.