Variegated Plants For Gardens: Tips On Using Plants With Variegated Foliage

By Bonnie L. Grant

Plant foliage is often one of the biggest attractions in the landscape. Seasonal color changes, different shapes, dramatic hues and even variegated leaves add drama and contrast. Variegated plants for gardens may be a natural mutation or engineered. It can often be difficult to keep your striped, stippled or mottled plant buddy bearing its variegation but there are a few tips to keep plants looking their best and wearing their stripes of honor proudly.

What Does Plant Variation Mean?

Variegated plants for gardens add a unique and unexpected touch to gardens populated by standard green foliage. What does plant variegation mean? It is the result of a mutated leaf cell and can be inherited or random. Gardening with variegated plants offers a host of interesting opportunities to accent and brighten regular foliage as well as provide a unique foil for flowering specimens. The result is a glorious cacophony of texture, hues and tones.


Variegation is produced when the plant cells lack pigment. It is usually a random mutation but can be propagated by using parent tissue. White coloring indicates the lack of chloroplasts, which help in photosynthesis by turning solar energy in to plant carbohydrates. This means variegated plants tend to grow more slowly than their counterparts. The effect may exhibit as wide light patches, stripes, dots and irregular patches.

Few plants with variegated foliage occur in nature. The majority are propagated in greenhouses as the later generation of a random sport with variegated leaves. Variegated plants for gardens come in a wide range of forms, both annual and perennial, flowering or simply bushy.

Types of Variegated Plants

Most nurseries and garden centers carry at least some plants with variegated foliage. There are even rhizomous plants, such as the variegated iris, which are early spring arrivals with striped sword-like leaves or the sunset colors of Canna ‘Sunburst’.

Sweet little bushes with white and gold stippling are entrancing when woven into the landscape along with standard foliage forms. Try gardening with variegated plants like:

Many succulents sport variegation, especially Agave. Hostas are foliage plants of renown and come in a range of variegated forms as do the Arums. Wild and native plants, such as Trillium and Epimedium, add a woodland charm to any garden.

Other examples of this exciting foliage include:

How to Garden with Variegated Plants

With all the types of variegated plants, it may be difficult to figure out how and where to use them. Some forms will lose their variegation if in too much or too little sun. Use shade lovers like Jacob’s Ladder or variegated creeping sedge in low light areas where they will keep their markings.

The new growth may also revert to standard green after a season or two. Cut back the new green growth to below a growth node and variegated material should regenerate.

Place variegated plants as accents, not a focal point, of the entire bed. They pop out best when against a contrasting background and with brightly colored accent plants. For an elegant look, use the white and green foliage paired with white flowering plants. They will complement each other and form an area of peaceful monochromatic lushness.

Keep plants in tip-top condition with excellent cultural care and correct siting. As a rule, plants with lots of white or yellow in the leaf need more sun. Even plants in shade need some light for at least 4 hours per day to produce photosynthetic energy for good health.

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