DES MOINES, IOWA — 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.
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.
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.
Canna 'Bengal Tiger' is aptly named with the bold yellow stripes on the large green leaves. You can just imagine a tiger lurking behind it. This plant is particularly handsome when the early morning or late afternoon sunlight catches the leaves.
Some stripes run against the grain, such as zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') and porcupine grass.
With their showy nature, variegated plants can be used to define the space of other "plain Jane" plants around them. Their different coloration lends a sense of movement to a garden.
When pairing variegated plants in the garden, look for ones that echo each other's colors without repeating the same pattern. For instance, Carol Mackie daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie'), with its small, rounded cream-edged leaves would be set off nicely by the somewhat striped leaves of variegated Solomon's seal (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum').
You can get away with a greater number of variegated plants in a garden if they are subtly colored. One gardener in California planted several multihued New Zealand flaxes (Phormium tenax 'Dazzler') - which have arching bronze leaves striped with red, orange, and pink - about three feet apart in her west-facing garden that overlooked the ocean. At sunset, the leaves glow like stained glass, echoing the changing colors in the sky.
Boldly variegated plants need special placement. Choose a spot that you want to be a focal point - the end of a path or corner of the house, for example - and place a single prominent variegated plant there or a grouping of the same small plants, such as the magnificent undulating hostas, such as Hosta 'Patriot' or Hosta 'Undulata.'
I like to include at least one variegated evergreen in any garden I plant. While they're valuable for their shape and texture, a variegated evergreen - from the small gold-variegated Juniperus x pfitzeriana to a large white-tipped hemlock such as Tsuga canadensis 'Gentsch White' - is a real attention-getter.
Especially in the short, sometimes bleak days of winter, it's often the only color in the garden. And year-round, as the sun goes down, the light portions of the needles of variegated evergreens continue to stand out.
Hostas are undoubtedly the kings of variegation, with so many different cultivars, leaf shapes, colors and hues, and varieties of variegation. They often work well when planted together. Yet, several different boldly variegated plants will compete for attention if planted on opposite sides of a path.
Instead, make a big, bold splash by planting them closely together. Stick to varieties that have variations of the same basic colors. Mixing green and white hostas with others that are chartreuse and blue is too disjointed for the eye.
An excellent use of variegated plants is to brighten up any dark spot in the garden. The paler portions of the leaves catch and reflect any light back to your eyes. From a distance, highly contrasted variegations, such as the bright white edges of Hosta crispula appear to be a bit above the leaf. Such plants draw you into the garden, perhaps because you need to confirm what you think you are seeing.
Most recently, I have come to appreciate variegated plants for their use in "evening gardens," those that are most often seen after the sun goes down - along a deck where you often entertain or at the edge of woods. As the sunlight fades, the green portion of the leaf gradually blends into the deepening darkness of the night. The variegation, however, seems to float.
Picture the heart-shaped outlines from hosta leaves, hovering near the ground. Pointing toward the sky are the swordlike leaves of variegated orris root (Iris pallida 'Variegata'). Floating above your head, like a hundred night moths fluttering on a breeze, are the delicately outlined leaves of the 'Butterfly' Japanese maple (Acer palmatum've 'Butterfly').
This is the true magic of variegated plants.