In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
March, 2011
Regional Report

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3737

With graceful, arching branches and trumpet shaped flowers, this weigela is irresistible to hummingbirds and bees.

Brighten Up your Garden with Variegated Plants

Flowers come and go, but the foliage of variegated plants remains all season long. The stripes, spots, and broad strokes of color are eye-catching; their patterns, sometimes bold and sometimes subtle, range in color from white, cream, yellow, gold, pale green to purple and even pink.

I use variegated plants as focal points in my landscape, but they're just as attractive when planted as contrasting companions to dense growing, dark-foliaged perennials and shrubs, or when used to lighten up an otherwise dark corner of the yard.

Variegated foliage is available in practically every ornamental, from trees and shrubs to groundcovers, grasses, annuals, and perennials. Leaves with neat edges of white or gold tend to be the most popular with gardeners, but leaves with variegated centers are also striking and are easy to find in garden centers. Variegated plants with streaked foliage or uneven patterns are harder to find, but because they are so unusual I think they add a special beauty to the garden.

What is Variegation?
The cream, white, or other coloration on a normally green leaf indicates a lack of chlorophyll. Because chlorophyll is necessary for photosynthesis, plants with variegated leaves produce and store less energy than plants with leaves that are completely green. While this sounds ominous, most variegated leaf plants are reliable performers. They can sometimes be less cold hardy than their all-green cousins, and a few variegated plants seem to suffer more insect damage due to weaker tissue in the non-green parts of the leaves, but I think the rewards of having these plants in the landscape far outweigh any risks.

There are several causes of variegation. Most often it is a genetic change within the plant itself. Sometimes it shows up as a mutated sprout or branch (called a sport) that emerges from an otherwise normal plant. Because of this, variegated plants can sometimes revert back and grow to be like their original, more vigorous parents. If you're growing a variegated plant and it develops some solid green leaves, it's trying to revert. If you prune off the branch or stem with the vigorous green growth, you'll be helping the plant retain its variegation.

All Time Favorites
If I had to choose a favorite variegated plant, the hands-down winner would be Weigela florida 'My Monet'. It's a dwarf (12-18 inch tall), deciduous shrub whose new leaves emerge with a pinkish tint. As they mature they change to green with cream colored margins. Hummingbirds and bees love the pink, trumpet-shaped flowers that bloom from spring through early summer in my garden.

A close second is dappled willow, Salix integra 'Hakuro-nishiki'. The leaves of this shrub are mottled in shades of white, pink, and green; the stems turn a striking red in the winter. It grows into a fountain shape which earns it a special place in my landscape so I can view it from all sides.

Other tried and true variegated plants include Euonymus japonica 'Silver King' with dark green leaves edged in creamy white, Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald 'n Gold' with green and yellow variegated leaves, 'Sherwood Frost' arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis 'Sherwood Frost') with a dusting of white on green foliage.

One of my favorite variegated perennials is the vigorous and hardy 'Antioch' hosta. In the beginning of the season the light green leaves are edged in yellow. As the season progresses the edges change to a lovely creamy white. Other perennials with variegated foliage include selections of Solomon's seal, pulmonaria, ajuga, lamium, and Japanese painted fern.

I hope you'll include a few variegated plants in your own garden this year. I think you'll be delighted with their presence.


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