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A variegated kaleidoscope

By Cathy Wilkinson BarashSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2003


As you walk into a garden, you normally notice vibrant colors first, then pale colors and white - especially when contrasted against green foliage. In most cases what you see are the flowers.

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Upon closer inspection, you discern the leaves - their varying shapes, sizes, and textures. If there is a variegated plant, you will quickly spot it. Since most leaves last longer than flowers, a variegated plant has the added bonus of standing out even without the benefit of its blossoms.

Variegation simply adds color to what would otherwise be a monochromatic plant.

Variegated means "having marks, stripes, or blotches of some color other than the basic background color, in plants that are green." Variegated plants are rarely considered a group unto themselves. Yet the longer I garden, and the more I travel and see others' gardens, the more I appreciate this wide-ranging group of plants, especially for the unique characteristics that make them so versatile.

The most common variegation is white or cream overlaid on green, yet that is by no means the only combination. Variegated foliage encompasses crimson, purple, orange, red, yellow, pink, apricot, yellow, mauve, and the varying shades and tints of green.

Most variegated plants are bicolor - with one color overlapping the basic green of the leaf.

More rare are the tricolor and multicolor variegations. Even if these plants never produce a flower, they would be real eye-catchers. For example, Houttuynia 'Chameleon' is a knockout with vibrant red stems holding up leaves with red, green, pink, and even a touch of bronze.

This creeper was a standout in a partially shaded corner of my former garden. It can be very invasive, particularly in warm climates, and I am taking advantage of that characteristic in my new garden, where it will provide a lot of color in a short time. (Sometimes keeping it dry and shaded prevents it from overgrowing.)

Variegations come in as wide a range of forms as the shades and tints they wear.

Even the simplest type - contrasting leaf edging - has many variations. In this type, the margin of the leaf is often cream, white, or yellow, accenting the shape of the leaf. The edge may be delineated with a thin line or a bold swath of color. The variegation may follow the margin of the leaf with geometric precision, or it may be very irregular.

Also, the variegations may be reversed; thus, the green becomes the edging with the contrasting hue as the main leaf color.

I find contrasting veining to be the prettiest and often the most intricate form of variegation. Here, the coloration follows the veins of the foliage, seeming to reveal the skeleton or inner structure of the leaf. On plants with small leaves, it gives a dainty, almost lacy effect.

Caladiums have big heart-shaped leaves with contrasting veining often accompanied by bold splotches of color - bright red veins on deep green leaves spotted with hot pink, for example. I consider caladiums the Dolly Partons of the shade garden. There is no way their vibrancy can be ignored. Use them sparingly - a few can go a long way.

One of my favorite ways to pair caladiums is to choose varieties that are the reverse of each other.

For example, 'Carolyn Whorton,' with its red veins and pale pink leaves with some green, is a good echo for 'Scarlet Pimpernel,' which is mostly pale green with pinkish red veins. Or look for a caladium with an almost perfectly white leaf that sports a red main vein and smaller veins of green.

Coordinating stripes

Another form of variegation is contrasting stripes. Like the other types, this is often found in nature, from faint pinstripes, as in maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus') to bold bands of color as in the yellow, silver, red, pink, or orange midribs of 'Rainbow' chard.

Usually stripes run the length of the leaf, parallel to the center vein, or they may be the vein itself.