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A variegated kaleidoscope

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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.

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Some stripes run against the grain, such as zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') and porcupine grass.

Variegation by design

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.