I've actually heard some people say they hate variegated plants, and when I hear it, it never ceases to shock me. How can anyone dislike these oddities of nature that do their best to be different?
I do have to hold myself back, however, because even I know too much variegation can throw off even the most mismatched garden. Still, I can't help but be drawn to those leaves and flowers that go against the norm and show off a little.
For those who are unaware, variegation in plants have white coloration mingled with the natural green of the leaves. Sometimes the white is simply an edge that outlines a leaf. Sometimes the white areas are like stripes and others are like painted blotches. In my garden, it doesn't matter what form the variegation takes. I like them all. Sometimes the variegation isn't white at all, but can be yellow, orange red, purple and even pink.
Variegation isn't always a result of planned plant breeding. It also occurs in nature and is usually a mutation, the result of a part of a leaf that doesn't produce chlorophyll. Chlorophyll, as everyone knows, is what gives plants their green coloration. We see it every fall when the leaves turn colors. The orange and yellow shades are xanthophyll pigments and are easily masked by the making of chlorophyll.
Red, pink and purple colors in plants are little different. They are a anthocyanin pigments. If there is an abundance of anthocyanin pigments, those colors will dominate. A good example of this is Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon,' commonly called chameleon plant. This sometimes invasive groundcover is hard to resist with its pink, red and green leaves and unusual white flowers, but many people do because it eventually shows up everywhere.
In deciduous trees, these colors occur naturally but are masked by the production of chlorophyll. When the sun sits deeper in the sky and the days get shorter, trees and shrubs are preparing for dormancy and don't need to make chlorophyll. We end up with a lovely fall show that some will travel long distances just to see and photograph.
A favorite variegated plant in my garden is Phlox paniculata 'Nora Leigh.' Like common phlox, the plant grows upright to about two feet tall and in mid-summer will produce the well-known five-petaled flowers. A similar plant, often confused with phlox, is Hesperis matronalis, or Dame's Rocket. This member of the mustard family is an invasive plant and blooms a little earlier than phlox. A simple way to tell the difference between the two is to remember that Dame's Rocket only has four petals to each flower.
Nora Leigh blooms are light pink flowers with deep pink centers. The combination of the flower color against the variegated leaves is striking, and I can't wait for the plant to bloom each summer. But Nora Leigh doesn't spread as much as common phlox, and sometimes the plant sends up plain green stems and leaves, a reversion back to its original form. When this happens, I pull up those stems. If I am not fastidious about it, the entire plant will revert to the original and the variegation will be lost.
This is true of a lot of variegated plants. Another that comes to mind is Aegopodium podagraria or Bishop's weed. This plant also is called goutweed and many people aren't happy with the original. Like chameleon plant, it can become very invasive, and like Nora Leigh, it will try to revert back to plain green. The green version is so aggressive, it eventually smothers the variegated sprouts and they disappear.
Another favorite variegated plant in my garden is Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa Variegata' or the Variegated Hollywood Juniper. This is a conifer with ivory tips on some of its leaf stems. At first glance, someone might think the plant is ill, but this is its natural color and it doesn't appear on every leaf stem, only here and there throughout the plant.
I can't seem to get enough variegated plants. I also have several variegated dogwoods, including redtwig (Cornus alba Elegantissima), many hostas and ornamental grasses.
I use white variegated plants to brighten shade gardens and to give contrast in the garden with dark green plants.