Variegated plants add excitement to any garden. Most perennials and shrubs bloom for a few weeks, then fade into the background of green. With variegated foliage, you add different colors to the landscape. They stand out even when they are not in bloom.
Nancy and I have quite a few variegated plants in our garden. Most of them are hostas because we like them, and they grow well in our mostly shady yard. Over the years, we have composted most of our one-color hostas unless they are an unusual shade of blue-green or yellow -green, or have unusually textured leaves.
We don’t know the names of most of our hostas, having purchased them at plant sales or picked them up from friends. Nancy uses hostas as border edging, alternating different styles including white on the outside, white in the center, and green and yellow in different patterns. It looks like just a mix of variegated hostas at a glance, but she has created a pattern with them.
One quick aside: A couple of weekends ago, when my 4-year-old grandson James was visiting, he spotted a picture of a dog in a magazine and recognized it as a Dalmation. I figured if he knew a dog breed, he should know a couple of plant species.
The two I chose were hosta and daylily. By the end of the weekend, he could tell hostas no matter their color combination or the size of the leaves, and he could tell daylilies as long as they were in bloom.
But away from the grandfatherly bragging and back to the topic.
Most variegated plants are mutants or sports with some sort of genetic variation that blocks chlorophyll — needed to transfer the sun’s energy to the plant — from part of the leaves.
“As a general rule,” Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery says on his company website, “the variegated forms of most plants are far less vigorous than their green counterpart. This can easily be accounted for by the lack of chlorophyll in the variegated sections of the leaf. Many variegates lack enough chlorophyll to live once they are severed from the mother plant. Research has found that many variegated plants also tend to suffer more insect damage on the variegated parts of the foliage than in the green areas, obviously due to the weaker tissue.”
Dogwoods are my favorite variegated shrub, but not entirely for the leaves.
We have an “Ivory Halo” that we planted in the mid-’80s that has wonderful green and cream leaves throughout the growing season. All winter long it has bright red twigs, and they are brighter if you cut out older branches at the ground and let the new twigs grow.
In the quarter-century since we put in “Ivory Halo,” some even better variegated dogwoods have come to market.
“Golden Shadows,” a new form of the native pagoda dogwood, has gold margins on green leaves, and the new growth is flushed with orange. Cornus kousa “Wolf Eyes” is the original variegated Korean dogwood, with cream white edges on green foliage. “Samzam” is similar, but the edges of its leaves turn pink and then burgundy in the fall. “Silver and Gold” is another variegated red-twig dogwood, although its twigs are yellow.
Variegated euonymus such as “Emerald Gaiety” and “Emerald and Gold” was a trendy plant in the ’70s, and we pulled out most of what we planted. It looks good when young, but spreads and gets straggly as it ages.
There are some variegated weigelas on the market. “My Monet” was introduced in the past decade, and has white edges on green foliage with dark-pink blossoms, while “Nana Variegata” is older and grows to 4 feet.
I’ve read about variegated beeches and Japanese maples, but have never seen them. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see more of these reaching the market soon.
There are more variegated grasses than you can count, but with most of them, the variegation is from stripes going along the length of the blade. One of my favorite grasses, Miscanthus sinensis “Strictus,” has horizontal variegation of white and green all along its 6-foot-long blades. It is simply gorgeous.
The variegated Solomon’s seal is a great plant that Nancy has grown for years. It has green leaves edged in yellow, and while at 2 feet it is shorter than our standard Solomon’s seal, it looks great in a bed with lots of hostas.
There are several variegated brunneras, perennial forget-me-nots, that you can consider. “Jack Frost” has green veins on silver leaves and is probably the most popular, but a new introduction, “King’s Ransom” with silver foliage, green overlays and a yellow border, is worth consideration.
Japanese painted fern is superb for dense shade. Other variegated perennials include many kinds of heuchera and some pulmonaria. For an annual, the obvious choice is coleus.
You can even grow variegated evergreens. We have a white-tipped hemlock in our back garden that looks good all year long, but is especially attractive in the winter. It grows only about 5 feet tall, so it works in most gardens.
When you’re thinking of new perennials or shrubs for your garden, think about plants with colored or variegated foliage. They will keep your garden more colorful all year long.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: