Variegated Foliage

Bicolored (Two-Toned) and Tricolored Plants Add Interest to the Landscape

Image: variegated maple tree leaf.
Some maple cultivars exhibit variegated foliage. David Beaulieu

The term "variegated" is applied to a flower or, more often, a leaf that is two-toned (that is, bicolored) or multi-toned. Often this will mean the foliage is blotched, striped, or bordered with a lighter color than that on the rest of it (or vice versa). The term is also applied more broadly to a whole plant that bears such leaves or blossoms. The corresponding noun for this definition is "variegation."

Variegated foliage is less commonly tricolored (or even quadricolored, as in the case of the aptly named Agave lophantha 'Quadricolor,' which bears four colors on one leaf) . Examples of plants that bear leaves containing three colors are:

  1. Harriet Waldman Japanese maple tree
  2. Arctic kiwi vine
  3. Tricolor sage
  4. Tricolor beech tree

Another interesting twist in the tale of variegation is that the two colors found on a plant's leaves can change according to season. Thus  'Alexander' is a variegated plant, but, whereas the two different colors in early spring are pink and green, in the summer they are white and green.

Indeed, a plant with variegated foliage may have much greater display value at one time of the year than at another. Take the Golden Shadows pagoda dogwood, for instance. The leaves of this short tree have at least two colors in them throughout the growing season, but they look their best in spring and in fall, when they take on a third color.

If you like the idea of having variegated plants in your landscaping, one plant that you may come to adore is the 'Nora Leigh' tall garden phlox. This novelty bears not only two-toned leaves, but also two-toned flowers.

What Causes Variegation, and Why Do Plants Lose It?

What is the reason behind variegation?

How do these chimeras (as they are sometimes called) of the plant kingdom form, in the first place? Well, there is more than one possible cause. But as the Royal Horticultural Society remarks, the variegated plants you see for sale on the shelves of garden centers are generally the result of mutations that plant developers have found and propagated.

When a variegated plant starts to lose one of its colors, it is said to be "reverting." Learn more about reversion here, including how to forestall it.

Other Examples of Variegated Plants

'Emerald Gaiety' euonymus and 'Moonshadow' euonymus are commonly grown shrubs that have variegated foliage. But other types of plants can bear two-toned leaves, too; for example (in addition to the vine and trees already mentioned):

  1. Carex 'Spark Plug', which is a kind of sedge.
  2. The popular hosta ground cover for shade called 'Francee' hosta.
  3. Petasites hybridus 'Variegatus,' a bicolored butterbur.
  4. Even some annuals get in on the fun, such as this variegated salvia.
  5. Dalmatian iris, a type of bearded iris.

Plants bearing variegated leaves are quite popular in landscaping, partly because the display value afforded by their attractive leaves is usually more persistent than the color provided by flowers.

View these pictures of plants with variegated leaves for more information.