Variegated plants, especially those with contrasting green and white variegated foliage, are real showstoppers! Find out all you need to know about variegated plants, including why they become variegated and how to take care of them.
Plants with various patterns including dots, marbles, stripes and blotches have been around for several hundred years and have always been popular among plant collectors. But how exactly do plants become variegated? Find out what distinguishes variegated plants from other plants, how they become variegated, which variegated plants are happy as houseplants and which are best kept outdoors.
What are variegated plants?
Variegated plants are those with leaves with more than one colour. They may be marked with differently coloured dots, blotches, speckles, stripes or edges. While these patterns are usually white, light green, yellow, red or pink variegation is also possible. Variegation can either be symmetrical and regular, occurring on all leaves, or more sporadic, uneven and varied in degree. Many plants with variegated leaves are known as ‘Variegata’, a Latin term meaning ‘variation’ or ‘diversity’.
How do plants become variegated?
There is no one reason as to why plants become variegated. To answer this, one would have to examine the plant’s DNA or look at its leaves under a microscope to find out. Botanists know of many mechanisms by which a leaf may develop partial or total colour deviations.
For instance, white dots may occur if there is air between the uppermost leaf layer and the cell layer below which reflects the light and makes the leaf appear white. In other cases, a lack of chlorophyll, the compound which gives plants their green colour, is the cause. In this case, the plant does produce chlorophyll, but it fades due to a genetic defect. If only a single cell layer is affected, this may result in grey-green dots.
A spontaneous mutation often only affects a few cells in certain areas. However, if stem cells of the leaf bud are involved, genetic information responsible for deciding whether chlorophyll is produced or not is passed on to all leaf cells. This is why some variegated plants have entirely white leaves. The degree to which the leaf colour changes depends mostly on genetics, but environmental conditions can to some extent also play a role.
Examples of variegated plants
A wide variety of plants have variegated leaves, from tropical houseplants and perennials to woody and vegetable plants. Here are some exciting examples of plants with variegated leaves.
Our favourite variegated houseplants
- Variegated Alocasia (Alocasia zebrina ‘Variegata’): Elephant ear plant with red-patterned leaf stems and green and white irregularly variegated leaves; like other varieties of Alocasia zebrina, this variegated houseplant can grow up to 1.5 m tall.
- Dragon tree (Dracaena): There are a number of variegated varieties of dragon trees, including ‘Golden Coast’ which has yellow edges, or ones with white stripes such as ‘White Jewel’.
- Tradescantia: Tradescantia fluminensis ‘Quadricolor’ and Tradescantia albioflora ‘Nanouk’ both have creamy white variegation with pink stems and a drooping growth habit.
- Pothos (Epipremnum pinnatum): ‘Happy Leaf’, ‘N-Joy’, and ‘Marble Queen’ are some examples of varieties of pothos that have variegated leaves with varying degrees of white on their smooth, glossy leaves.
- Variegated Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa ‘Variegata’): This popular and trending variegated Monstera, also known as the Monstera albo, is a variegated climbing plant with large, fenestrated leaves and stunning contrasting white variegation; reaches up to 4 metres tall.
- Monstera ‘Thai Constellation’: Another variegated Monstera, ‘Thai Constellation’ is a cultivar with marbled creamy white variegated leaves.
- Variegated Monstera monkey leaf (Monstera adansonii ‘Variegata’): Also known as the variegated monkey mask, this popular climbing variegated plant is highly sought-after by houseplant collectors due to its creamy-white variegated leaves.
- Calathea ‘White Fusion’: Beautiful type of prayer plant with green and white variegated leaves and a distinct purple leaf underside.
- Philodendron ‘Pink Princess’: A popular example of a pink variegated plant, Philodendron has dark purple-green foliage with bright pink contrasting variegation.
Tip: Variegated plants need just as much fertiliser as their non-variegated counterparts. Our Plantura Liquid Houseplant Food is an organic fertiliser that is easy to apply and is specially formulated to ensure the nutrients reach the roots quickly. It can also help to treat nutrient deficiencies and the associated deficiency symptoms.
Our favourite variegated outdoor plants
- Pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’): Fruity mint species, 30 – 60 cm tall, refreshing pineapple aroma and beautiful leaves with white margins.
- Variegated sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Tricolor’): Garden sage variety with white variegated leaves and purple shoots which make the plant appear as though it has three colours.
- Plantain lilies (Hosta): Among the ornamental foliage perennials, there are various varieties with white, yellow or light green variegated leaves such as ‘Patriot’, ‘Gold Standard’ or ‘El Nino’.
- Variegated tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum): There are now several varieties of tomatoes with variegated foliage where even the calyx has a creamy white pattern, such as ‘Faelan’s First’ or ‘Painted Lady’.
- Variegated Carex plant (Carex): Evergreen sedge grass with white to yellow and dark green blades; various species and varieties with variegation are available.
- Variegated periwinkle (Vinca minor ‘Variegata’): Somewhat frost sensitive ground cover with evergreen leaves with creamy white edges and blue-violet flowers.
- Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Dawson’s White’): Type of great forget-me-not with light blue flowers; reaches up to 40 cm tall; large, heart-shaped variegated leaves.
- Lesser celandine (Arundo donax ‘Variegata’): Also known as pilewort; grass reaching up to 3 m tall with striking white stripes on leaves and stems; requires frost-free overwintering or protection during harsh winters.
Our favourite woody plants with variegated leaves
- Harlequin willow (Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’): Ornamental willow reaching up to 3 m tall with elongated leaves that are initially white with pink patterns and later turn green and white.
- Marshmallow plant (Hibiscus ‘Purpureus Variegatus’): Hibiscus variety reaching up to 2 m tall with dark red flowers; this variegated shrub does best in a warm location.
- Climbing spindle bush (Euonymus fortunei ‘Variegatus’): Evergreen creeping or climbing variegated shrub reaching up to 30 cm tall; green and grey to silvery white marbled patterns and shoots with pink edges.
- Variegated ivy (Hedera helix ‘Glacier’): Fast-growing evergreen ivy with heart-shaped leaves and silvery grey and green marble patterns and white edges; yellow variegated ivy varieties such as ‘Gold Child’ are also available.
- Variegated box elder (Acer negundo ‘Variegatum’and‘Flamingo’): Maple tree with a small crown and leaves with marble patterns and irregular white edges that are pink when they emerge in spring.
- Variegated holly (Ilex aquifolium ‘Silver Queen’): Evergreen variegated holly up to 4 m tall with small green and grey marble patterns and foliage with white edges; no thorns and small orange red berries.
- Weigela (Weigela florida ‘Nana Variegata’): One of the few variegated shrubs with numerous pink and white flowers and a very compact growth habit for weigelas; reaches up to 2 m tall.
- White dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’): Dogwood species with irregular grey-green leaves that are partly covered in a reddish pink and have creamy white edges.
Variegated plants: care and propagation
Variegated plants require the same soil and nutrients as other members of the same plant family without variegated leaves. Generally speaking, heavily variegated plants with a lot of white do not grow as fast as plants with little or no variegation. This is due to the fact that, in variegated plants, less of the leaves’ surface is green. As a result, these plants have less chlorophyll and so are not able to photosynthesise as efficiently. If variegation is important to you, here are a few things to bear in mind when taking care of your variegated plants:
- Ensure your variegated plants are getting enough light to prevent the plant from reverting (losing variegation) and the new leaves coming in green.
- Do not expose variegated indoor plants to direct sunlight as the white parts of the leaves are more sensitive and are more susceptible to sunburn.
- If possible, use a vegetative propagation method (using cuttings, offshoots or division) to obtain genetically identical plants with the same leaf pattern.
- Cut back shoots that do not show any variegation and only take cuttings of those with the desired leaf colour.
- Plants grown from seed may not be variegated due to back mutation (reversion) or crossbreeding.
The silver inch plant (Tradescantia zebrina), also known as wandering Jew or less controversially wandering dude, also has beautifully colourful foliage and makes a great indoor hanging plant. Find out all about this plant in our article.