Can variegated plants really make your garden more appealing? The answer is a resounding yes, provided you use them sparingly and orient the plants for the best effect.
But let’s start with the phenomenon itself as variegated plants are natural mutations with patterns of different colours in the foliage (or the flowers), although this can also be caused by herbicide contamination or even intentional chemical or radiation exposure by companies looking to create new varieties. Foliage variegation may be marginal (along the edge of the leaf), inset (centered inside), marbled, speckled, patterned, or even interveinal, like that found on Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’.
Generic botanical terms that indicate variegation include ‘Variegata’, ‘Tricolor’ (three-coloured), ‘Aureomarginata’ (edged with gold), ‘Picturata’ (decorated with colour), and ‘Argentea Marginata (silver-edged), among others. All variegated plants are prone to reversion, or spontaneously growing new shoots without variegation, and these will need to be pruned out as soon as possible as they grow much faster than the variegated foliage.
Variegated Plants Were Made for the Shade
Variegated plants really excel in the shade, as they brighten the often dark and excessively green garden space. Hosta is an obvious choice, with the crisp white-edged ‘Patriot’ and the golden ‘Rainforest Sunrise’ quickly bringing the verdant darkness to life. For perennials, the mottled silver leaves of Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ continue to pop long after the blue forget-me-not flowers have faded and the hardy Cyclamen coum will give you February to March blooms with inset variegation that often looks like a little conifer. My shrub of choice is the reliably evergreen Aucuba japonica ‘Picturata’ which averages 4-5’ tall and can even be trained into an informal hedge.
Vines are another means of highlighting a bare garden structure or fence and one of the best is Actinidia kolomikta with green leaves that eventually develop bright pink and white tip highlights. Along the same colour scheme is the variegated porcelain vine, Ampelopsis ‘Elegans’, which bears maple-like leaves with pink-white marbling and eye-catching purple to blue berries in the fall. For evergreen coverage, try the Persian Ivy Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’ which has larger sulfur-edged leaves and is much less invasive than English Ivy.
Pop Those Planters with Variegated Plants
Nothing brings a planter to life better than a little variegation, and for that you need look no further than Euphorbias with ‘Ascot Rainbow’, ‘Glacier Blue’, and ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ all being great choices. Trailing evergreen grasses such as Carex ‘Evergold’ and ‘Feather Falls’ will help to cover those bare planter edges and the brilliant gold-variegated leaves of Vinca minor ‘Illumination’ are an absolute show-stopper with the periwinkle-blue flowers being a great bonus.
Eat Your Variegated Plants
I know the vegetable garden can be less than aesthetically appealing at times, but by edging with a few variegated herbs, you can enjoy both beautiful and tasty spices. Start with Thymus vulgaris ‘Silver Posie’, a white-edged English thyme with superb flavour. There are a lot of choices with common sage (Salvia officinalis), including ‘Icterina’ (gold-edged) and ‘Tricolor’ (white edges with purple tints), both of which bring that authentic flavour to the turkey stuffing. Let’s not forget the oregano and marjoram, as each comes in gold-leaved and variegated forms.
Stand-Alone Variegated Shrubs
I have just three variegated features in my entire garden, a solitary Pieris ‘Astrid’, a few Euonymus ‘Moonshadow’ I use for edging, and a small variegated English boxwood hedge, all of which are evergreen and provide year-round interest. For solitary shrubs, I would recommend the dwarf Pieris japonica ‘Little Heath’ (white-edged, pink new growth) and the slightly taller Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ that has holly-like leaves that are a marbled green and gold with brilliant pink highlights in spring. A good deciduous shrub with a similar pink impression is the ‘Nishiki’ willow (Salix), which produces fine green, white, and pink foliage all summer long and is often available as a grafted standard.
Feature Variegated Trees
Korean Dogwoods are popular front yard trees and if you look carefully, you might be able to find one of the variegated forms, which will continue to capture your attention long after the flowers have faded. Cornus kousa ‘Summer Gold’, ‘Wolf Eyes’ (ivory margins) or the hybrid ‘Celestial Shadow’ (gold edges) are all strong cultivars with spectacular fall foliage. The Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’ fits just about any garden space with its slower growth rate and maximum height of 8-12’ tall, with the white-edged foliage emerging with a burst of pink in spring.
Just remember that less is more when it comes to variegation, so use it sparingly and you will be able to enjoy all of its eye-catching benefits.