If I were to tell you that there were a neglected group of trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals that could provide excellent color to even the dreariest corner of your landscape, would you be interested? If I were further to say that these plants did so throughout the growing season, without the normal gardener’s headaches such as trying to sequence bloom time, or deadheading, would your curiosity be tickled? And if I were to add that many of these plants, though occasionally requiring a bit of work to track down, were often no more expensive than their more common brethren? What then? Would your horticultural appetite be whetted? If so, you’re in luck, because such wonders truly exist: the family of variegated plants.
First though, let’s define some terms. In the broadest classification, variegated plants are those with colored or patterned leaves, generally white or yellow on green, though occasionally the entire leaf is a different color, such as purple, or a combination of different colors. How this variegation occurs in nature is rather fascinating. White and yellow variegations are caused by a type of cell mutation in the leaf. The lighter colored cells lack functioning green chlorophyll, the substance that allows plants to process energy from the sun, thus these mutated areas appear white or yellow to our eyes. In red or purple variegated plants, the chlorophyll is present, but is masked by substances called anthocyanins – the compound also responsible for the changing color of leaves in the fall, though with variegated plants, it is present all season long. Both types of variegation are the product of random mutations, and are hard to predict, even by plant breeders. Thus when a particularly interesting pattern arises at random, breeders must propagate all subsequent plants vegetatively (i.e. as from cuttings.) which means they are often less common in nurseries than their solid-colored cousins.
Uses in the garden
Variegated plants are well worth the effort to hunt down however, if for no other reason than their remarkable ability to lighten even the dimmest corners of the garden. And because their coloration depends on foliage, not on flower, their display is a horticultural constant throughout the growing season – some in fact, are even evergreen, and can fulfill this function year round. In my garden, for example: a planting of green firs and blue/green spruces is dramatically highlighted throughout the year by the inclusion of a single golden chamaecyparis; elsewhere, a massing of lilacs and spirea comes alive when combined with variegated weigela; in the herb garden, golden sage makes a wonderful offset to the dark green of dwarf boxwood; similarly, a single specimen of variegated lemon in the green house provides the focal point for a collection of citrus in tubs. Occurring in all shapes and sizes, for both sun and shade, variegated plants can provide the perfect means of enhancing any number of plant combinations
Yet given this remarkable adaptability, how come variegated varieties of many species are still fairly rare in our gardens? Part of the problem, I think, is that many gardeners really don’t know how to use unfamiliar variegated plants effectively. That’s because variegated material can’t (or generally shouldn’t) be used as you would other plants, as the principal theme in the landscape; rather variegated plants need to be carefully positioned as accents or enhancements to other extant plantings in the garden. While utilizing variegated plants to their best advantage can require a bit of practice, keeping a couple of tips in mind will greatly speed your learning curve:
Echo existing colors in your garden
When choosing variegated plants, take a close look at the leaves, and make sure that the colors that occur there are echoed elsewhere in your garden. Try taking, for instance, the yellow-green leaves of euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald n’ Gold’ and combining those with yellow flowering species such as hypericum or kerria japonica. Or mix the white and green striped leaves of carex ‘Ice Dance’ with the chartreuse green of hosta foliage. Another wonderful combination is the golden edged leaves of the variegated Norway maple, acer planatoides ‘Aureomarginatum’ set off against the dark background of other woodland trees. Even simple combinations within a single plant family can be very effective: variegated iris mixed in among their solid colored cousins make a stunning contrast, for example.
Granted, more complicated groupings can sometimes be somewhat difficult to visualize. Very often, I’ve found that the easiest way to judge potential combinations is to physically compare plants in the garden or at the nursery, putting them side by side (or placing individual leaves side-by-side in the case of larger plants.) Although something of a process of trial and error, when done correctly, the results can be truly dramatic.
Don’t over do it
One important caveat when using variegated materials: Don’t overdue it. Variegated plants, especially those with solid colored leaves, make a very strong statement in the garden. When overused, variegated plants can easily overwhelm the landscape with a jumble of discordant hues, leaving the bewildered gardener with a mass of competing, colored blobs that do nothing but fight with each other. If you are new to using variegated plants, it’s a good beginners’ rule to separate variegated plants from each other by equal masses of plain colored leaves, and that within each distinct area of your garden, the variegations should all be related in hue. Latter, as you gain expertise, you can experiment with more contrasting color combinations. Also, keep in mind that while variegated plants can be used effectively en masse, in such cases it’s best to limit your selections to one or two varieties, and to make sure that these are offset by an equally large number of solid colored companions. That way you’ll guarantee that your planting works as a visual whole, rather than a group of discordant pieces.
Finally, keep in mind that not all variegations have the same visual “weight” in the garden. Thinly edged variegated plants, or those with very subtle color combinations, are best used where their delicate pigmentation can be appreciated close at hand. Solid colored leaves, especially red or gold, are very dramatic. Up close, such plants can simply overwhelm their companions, and are often at their best when used as a focal point to pull the eye some distance across the garden. Also, when choosing variegated material, keep in mind the background against which it will be seen. Light colored variegations against light-colored backgrounds such as a white house can often appear pale and indistinct, while dark variegations against dark backgrounds will often simply disappear. Again, you need to anticipate a certain amount of trial and error when using variegated material, but very few other plants groups can so easily provide such visual richness for your garden.