Variegation 101

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Let’s talk about the visual joy that is variegation. Namely, what are the causes, how might plant care differ for these glitzy sorts from their plain counterparts, and can you retain variegation when propagating?

Variegation is what we call the presence of unusual coloured areas in the leaves (and very occasionally the stems) of plants.  It can present as marbled patterns of either white, cream, yellow and even more exotic shades of purple or red.

Talking just houseplants, you’ll likely have spotted variegated species of fatsia, ficus (particularly the rubber plant), philodendron, ivy, monstera, peperomia… they’re pretty common to come across since they have become so commercially desirable. Below is a rare variegated Clivia ‘Akebono’ which we fell in love with at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.

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Variegation is caused by cell mutation; this mutation can be inherited (genetic) or totally random. The mutation causes a lack of the green pigment, chlorophyll. Out in the natural world, these mutated plants can revert back to solid green (because the ‘healthy’ stems and leaves outgrow the variegated leaves and stems), or they may not survive as long since this lack of chlorophyll means the plant can’t create energy through photosynthesis very well. 

Some scientists believe that variegation can protect a plant from certain pests, who mistake the leaf patterns for signs of disease, and therefore steer clear. Nature, you so cool! 

Under the adoring eyes of a proud plant parent, though, variegated plants can thrive. Because of the lack of green chlorophyll making photosynthesis harder, variegated plants do tend to grow slower, so don’t worry if you notice a lack of zealous growth.  

When it comes to light, variegated plants can benefit from a little extra than their plain counterparts, but too much can cause sunburn to the white leaves. It’s worth experimenting a little to find the right balance in your home.  

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As for propagation, you want to take full stem cuttings, making sure you cut in an area of stem that shows the desired patterns of variegation. As we learned above, variegation has varying levels of stability, but commercially cultivated plants are often more stable. Look for plants that have consistent variegation throughout the plant rather than random dots of pattern here and there.  

Remember to cut just below a node when propagating, and just above a node when pruning. Therefore, rather than leaving a stalk on the parent plant when you take a cutting from it, prune the stalk down to just above the next node down to encourage new growth. 

This last bit gets interesting: if you have a variegated plant that shows a mixture of solid green leaves, solid white leaves, and some marbled leaves, bear in mind that the white leaves will be using up lots of the plant’s energy without producing any, and the solid green leaves will encourage the plant to revert back to green. 

As sad as it might seem, you might want to consider pruning off the solid green and solid white leaves to encourage the marbled leaves to continue to grow. 

We hope that answered some of your questions, and we’d love you to share photos of your variegated plants with us on Instagram!