August 11, 2013

Maine Gardener: For these two, plants are best as motley crew

By TOM ATWELL

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.

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