February 19, 2024

In the garden and on the terrace, the colors that dominate in our plants are greens of very different shades. On many occasions, contrasts are sought and species with nuances are added that break the dominance of color. This is where the large group of variegated plants comes in, which are those that show white, cream, yellowish or green tones on their leaves or stems that are lighter than the rest of the specimen. They can be from trees to shrubs, herbaceous perennials or even annual plants that live a single vegetative cycle, from autumn or spring to summer, for example. Although not as widely used, the term variegated plants can also be heard to refer to them.

They are not usually different species from their parents, but generally small mutations that cause this lack of chlorophyll, which is the pigment responsible for photosynthesis and gives plants their green color. Other times, this lack of pigmentation may have another type of origin. One of the possibilities is what is known as chimera: individuals that genetically have two types of tissues, which makes them prone to creating parts without chlorophyll, as if they were two plants united in one.

Yone Martiarena, a passionate collector of variegated plants from Hernani (Gipuzkoa), tells of her attraction to this botanical group: “A green plant has its flower and its color at a certain moment, but a variegated plant is enjoyed a lot throughout the season and gives a lot of light in the garden and in the house.

Fran Villegas, a gardener at the Alhambra in Granada, agrees with this: “About 12 years ago, we planted a few variegated boxwoods (buxus sempervirens ‘Argenteovariegata’) in the forest of the Alhambra, at the foot of the walls. They were placed to contrast with the majority green of so many shrubs, and the effect generated by these boxwoods among the acanthus (acanthus mollis) it’s fabulous”.

A variegated boxwood in the Alhambra in Granada.
A variegated boxwood in the Alhambra in Granada.– Photo by Fran Villegas

That virtue of illuminating dark corners is held by variegated shrubs as popular as the aucuba (aucuba japonica ‘Crotonifolia’), perfect for growing in shady situations, which increases its interest. Other classic shrubs are all euonyms (euonymous spp.), a large genus, both for the number of its species and varieties and for its gardening tradition. With euonyms you have to be careful with one of the peculiarities of many variegated plants: their instability when it comes to showing their peculiar genetics. When least expected, these yellowish or whitish-leaved varieties turn on an all-green branch, spoiling the overall effect of their variegation. It is then when those green parts have to be suppressed, since they have more chlorophyll and, therefore, get much more energy for the plant than the variegated parts. If they were not cut, the plant would suffer a reversal of forms: Little by little, the green parts become more important and occupy more space, to the detriment of the variegated ones.

For this reason, a variegated plant will always grow more slowly than one of the same species without variegation, which does not suffer this loss of chlorophyll. Martiarena insists on this: “These are often smaller and more delicate plants than if they were completely green.” So you have to give them a special care in their cultivation.

A variegated geranium from Yone Martiarena.
A variegated geranium from Yone Martiarena.Yone Martiarena

Asier Bilbao, another collector of variegated plants in Gipuzkoa, puts his finger on the sore point with this topic, since many people don’t usually like them: “At first they seemed sick to me, but now, instead, I see the beauty of their different tones ”. And that first thought is not entirely misguided, because there are also viruses that cause discoloration on the leaves of species such as durillos (Viburnum tinus), something very common that is seen in the hedges that are created with this species.

“My first variegated plants were some as common as a poto (Epipremnum aureum), the fitonia (Fittonia albivenis) and the typical tapes (Chlorophytum comosum ‘Vittatum’). Now I have others, like a beautiful monstera variegated or a ficus elastica ‘Tineke’ even clearer than the usual ones and that I found in France”, details Bilbao. And it is that the world of variegated varieties is of great interest among many growers and has a huge number of followers on social networks, as demonstrated by the hashtag #variegated Friday on Instagram, for example.

A spectacular Agave americana 'Marginata' showing the variegated color in its leaves.
A spectacular Agave americana ‘Marginata’ showing the variegated color in its leaves.Edward Beard

“Variegated varieties make us fall in love with their rare beauty,” says Mishara García, an expert grower and connoisseur of this type of plant, “you just have to see the monstera ‘Thai Constellations’. Although my favorite is Philodendron ‘Pink Princess’, which has variegations ranging from pale pink to fuchsia, which, mixed with its intense green, creates a unique contrast”. This fever means that there are variegated indoor plants that reach exorbitant prices of even thousands of euros, due to the scarcity of specimens of certain varieties.

But we can start an interesting collection without spending a large amount of money with some of the varieties that Yone Martiarena recommends: “The incense plant (Plectranthus coleoides ‘Marginatus’), the variegated agapanthus (Agapanthus var.) or aspidistras like ‘Milky Way’, so beautiful”. Albication, another term coined by the Catalan botanist Pius Font i Quer for this phenomenon of variegated plants, has a legion of peaceful followers.

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