Most of us have one or more variegated plants in our yards. The leaf variegation adds interest, provides contrast to other garden plants and adds light to shadier areas of our yard. But why are the leaves colored?


Most of us have one or more variegated plants in our yards. The leaf variegation adds interest, provides contrast to other garden plants and adds light to shadier areas of our yard. But why are the leaves colored?

Plants appear green because of the presence of the green pigment chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the critical molecule for photosynthesis. Chlorophyll primarily reflects the green part of sunlight, giving plants that undergo photosynthesis their typical green color. Chlorophyll absorbs light, capturing this light energy which is stored in sugars, transported, stored and used throughout the plant. When part of a plant lacks pigment, it appears white, cream or light yellow colored. Plants that have leaves that are orange, yellow, light green or other unusual color is the result of the lack of chlorophyll revealing other pigments. Pigments such as carotenoid (orange), anthocyanin (pinks, reds, purples) or xanthophyllis (yellow). Variegation may also be due to a pathogen or herbicide injury in addition to genetic changes within the plant itself. This is why periodically we may encounter a newly variegated shoot on an otherwise non-variegated plant.

Variegated leaves can be margined, spotted, striped or streaked and many other descriptions. Plant breeders are developing new variegated varieties every year because the consumer is demanding ‘new’ plants. However, by genetically reducing the chlorophyll in variegated plants there is a reduced level of photosynthesis so these plants are producing less food for themselves. Therefore variegated plants are less robust than their greener counterparts.

One of the largest groups of variegated plants is the Hosta. Over half of the new hosta introductions are variegated, a result of hostas being genetically unstable and literally producing a leaf of a different color (mutation or sport). Hosta growers then propagate this leaf to see if the plant will remain variegated or if it will revert to the parent plant color. Some other variegated leaf plants include houseplants, many flowers, sedums,  grasses, ferns, shrubs and trees. Plants can also have variegated flowers such as the newer varieties of tulip.

Variegated plants are increasing in popularity and are available from most greenhouses or catalogs. These plants are bold and beautiful and can be a dramatic contrast against other green foliage plants. Placed with purpose and in unity with your overall landscape, the impact of variegated plants can be spectacular. Why not brighten up your yard this year?

Reference:  David C. Zlasak, Regional Extension Educator