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Designing with and care of variegated plants

The first time I saw a plant that had leaves with different colored patterning, I just had to have it! Then, in what seemed like no time at all the leaves turned from that pretty variegated pattern to solid green. What happened?

Elaeagnus - bush can be an uplifting accent in a stark corner.
Elaeagnus - bush can be an uplifting accent in a stark corner.

In nature, when a plant is solid green but has some stems with variegated foliage that section is called a sport. The sports are removed and propagated to make more plants with this attribute. At some point as the new variegated plants mature, they can start to revert back to the mother plant of all green foliage.

The good news is that once you see even one stem that is trying to revert to sold green foliage removing it right away slows the reverting.

When variegated plants are checked often and all solid green stems are removed from their origin they can continue to be variegated for their lifetime. Once a plant has turned mostly green however, it may not come back variegated when all that green is removed.

When designing a garden it’s nice to know that many variegated foliage plants like to live in dappled shade. This is great news because some solid green foliage plants can get a bit lost in shady spots. Adding variegated foliage creates a more dynamic design. For collectors of variegated plants it can be a delight to have a whole section of the garden filled with variegated plants all fighting for attention. For other viewers though, this lack of any defined focal point can become a dizzying array with nowhere for the eye to rest. Start with a variegated plant on a corner or in a container that can be moved around to find just the right spot or group some of the same variegated plants under a small tree.

Here is a list of some great variegated plants:

Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’ (Glossy Abelia) - Has yellow and green variegation and in fall the leaves can get a pink to bronze cast. Grow in full sun or partial shade. Grown in too much shade it tends to lose its variegation and get leggy.

Silene dioica ‘Clifford Moor’ - A sweet, low growing ground cover plant that spreads slowly over time. The tall stemmed, pink pinwheel shaped flowers are a bonus. If you want to keep the foliage looking great remove the flowers instead of letting them bloom fully.

Carex ‘Evergold’. This long-lived, evergreen grass looks great when planted in a group.
Carex ‘Evergold’. This long-lived, evergreen grass looks great when planted in a group.

Baeagnus x Ebbingei ‘Gilt Edge’ - This evergreen shrub can be shaped to be a small tree or allowed to become hedge-like. Wear gloves when working with Elaeagnus because the leaves have little hairs on them that can irritate skin, which is why deer tend to leave it alone.

Dahpne odora ‘Maejima’ - Unlike the Daphne that has cream or white edges this spectacular Daphne has yellow edges that call attention to it long after the fragrant blooms have faded.

Carex ‘Evergold’ - This long-lived, evergreen grass looks great when planted in a group. When planted 2 feet apart (from center of one plant to center of next plant) their tips will just touch when mature. Carex in general do not love being sheared to the ground every year like some grasses. Clean out old leaves from underneath as needed. Because Carex grow back so slowly or not at all from shearing, it’s best to replace them if needed.

Euonymous japonicus ‘Microphyllus Variegatus’ - This is a slow growing, evergreen shrub with small leaves of white and green variegation. When needed it can be pruned into bare stems to encourage new growth.

Phormium ‘Maori Queen’ - Even Phormiums can start to revert. ‘Maori Queen’ has lovely coral and pale yellow coloring with green. Phormiums are often pruned in a way that distorts their beautiful fountain shape form. When pruned well Phormiums can be beautiful for many years.

WATCH The Gardening Tutor’s YouTube Video: How to Prune a Phormium for a detailed tutorial.

Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ - This short stature grass has chartreuse and green leaves that usually arch to one side, making them great for falling over rocks or onto a pathway. When crushed the leaves smell like soap in the best way possible. Also comes in a white variegation variety called ‘Variegatus’ .

Canna ‘Tropicanna Gold’ - The orange flowers and yellow striped leaves of this Canna prefer to grow in dappled shade. When grown in full sun the summer heat cooks the leaves. Cannas have huge tropical leaves and come in several variegated varieties.

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