Variegated foliage plants are a kaleidoscope for the garden.
Most of these start out as unusual mutations of the cells that produce chlorophyll. When that bright green compound is lacking, other leaf pigments like red and pink anthocyanin and creamy yellow carotene show through. Eventually, some enterprising nursery will take cuttings and develop a new variety for sale.
White streaks are areas with no pigments at all. This lack of chlorophyll means variegated plants aren’t as vigorous as their fully green cousins and any green sports (or new growth) that appear on a plant could take it over.
Because chlorophyll harvests energy from sunshine, variegated plants grown in low light can revert to green. To prevent this, they need to be grown in as much light as they can stand without burning. The rule of thumb says that if a plant has gold on its leaf edges, plant it in full sun; gold in the center of the leaf means it needs dappled shade; white leaf margins mean the plant may scorch in the sun; white centers mean full sun will fry the plant.
Variegated plants are like landscape seasoning — a little goes a long way. Too many create a confusing jumble competing for your attention. Instead, let variegated plants draw the eye to and through your garden. Create focal points of small groupings, with several in a bed to keep the eye moving. To unify areas, use variegation to bridge colors among your other garden plants, the way you’d use curtains and accessories in a living room to match the tints of the sofa.
For example, the creamy stripe in the foliage of a sweet iris could connect yellow yarrow perennials and golden Japanese barberry shrubs. The bright red, yellow and green mix of chameleon plant would pull together a grouping of magenta cranesbill and white sweet alyssum. To tone down the variegated effect, create pools of color by surrounding the bright spots with plants having similar shades in their leaves or flowers.
Here are some favorite variegated plants that can spice up a garden:
• Sweet iris. Upright, pale yellow leaves with pale blue flowers in spring, 20-30 inches; full sun; well-drained soil; zones 4-8.
• Ornamental pepper. Cool purple leaves and fiery-hot, bright red fruits; full sun; well drained soil; does well in containers; annual.
• Zebra grass. Tall, straplike spikes with golden horizontal bands, 3-4 feet; full sun; well-drained soil; perfect for hedges or the back of the garden; dwarf cultivars available; zones 5-9.
• Solomon’s seal. Tall, mounding perennial with arching foliage 2-3 feet; tiny, white, bell-shaped flowers in spring; full to part shade; medium to wet soil; zones 3-9.
• Variegated fuchsia. Showy red stems and gray-green foliage with white margins, new growth is pink; frilly, pendant purple flowers with red spires summer to frost; part sun; 18-36-inch spreader; moist to wet soil; zone 10 tropical grown as an annual, can be wintered-over as a houseplant.
Joe Lamp’l, host of “Growing a Greener World” on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com.
Some plant may be considered noxious weeds in your area. If you’re not sure what plants may be invasive in your area, check with your local garden, horticultural center or noxious weed control board.