Variegated plants - featured image

Welcome to my WTF Gardening series, where I take common gardening terms and explain them for those who are new to the world of plants. Find the entire WTF Gardening series here.

Variegated plants have been popular with gardeners and Plant Geeks for centuries. But they’re particularly trendy at the moment – and for good reason! They’re beautiful, unusual and unique. What more could you want from a plant?

So what is variegation?

In plants, variegation means the appearance of different coloured zones on leaves, stems, fruit or flowers. Therefore, a variegated plant would appear two-toned or multi-tonal.

The variegated sections on a plant may appear as stripes, spots, circles, borders and other shapes. 


Some plants have clearly variegated sections, whereas some variegations may appear with some blending between sections, making their variegations appear more subtle, or take over the whole appearance of the leaf.


Variegated nettles

Variegated nettles


And variegations can appear in different colours, too – not just green!





How does variegation happen?

Variegation is caused by the lack of chlorophyll (the green pigment) in some of the plant cells. 

In plants that are not primarily green, variegation still occurs because of a lack of pigment in certain plant cells. These plants may have other dominant pigments such as carotenoids, which usually appear yellow to orange, and anthocyanins, which are red to purple. This can give some amazing effects!

Variegation rarely occurs naturally. Most plants you see with variegations in garden centres and nurseries have been selected for their uniqueness and beauty. This is because variegation isn’t of much use to a plant in the wild, as the lack of chlorophyll means it has less energy (and plants need energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose). That’s why variegated plant relatives often grow a little bit more slowly than their full-green mates!

The different types of variegation

Variegations can be uniform (sometimes called pattern-gene or natural) – this is where the variegations occur in the same way across an entire plant. Variegations can also be random (known as ‘chimeral’), a chimera can be difficult to propagate.

Viral variegation

Virus infections can also cause natural variegation in plants. For example, the mosaic virus causes mosaic-like patterns on leaves of certain plants.


Mosaic virus

Abutilon striatum: Abutilon mosaic, caused by Abutilon mosaic virus


Blister or reflective variegation

This type of variegation occurs when tiny air pockets form between the layers in the leaves of the plant. These air pockets become reflective when the light hits them, giving them a silvery appearance.


Angel Wing Begonia

The Angel Wing Begonia exhibits blister variegation


Variegated plants shouldn’t need special care. For example, if you manage to get your hands on a super trendy variegated Monstera deliciosa, you should be able to look after it just like any other Monstera deliciosa. However, you may find yourself quickly becoming an Instagram plant mum/dad with the amount of pictures you take of your new variegated plant!


Watermelon Peperomia

Watermelon Peperomia [by Mokkie under this license]

You can read about more unusual variegated plants here.


What would you like to learn about next in the WTF Gardening series? Let me know in the comments below!



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