Working with Variegated Plants
So much for Bloom Day here in southeastern Pennsylvania. We had flowers 2 weeks ago, even 3 weeks ago, but in the last week, May turned into January, and for the past few days, we’ve stayed below freezing and been buried in sleet and snow. In between shoveling sessions, I’ve resorted to pulling from my photo archives so I can write about another favorite subject: variegated plants. ‘Evergold’ sedge ( Carex oshimensis) and variegated Solomon’s seal ( Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’) with ostrich fern ( Matteuccia struthiopteris) and ‘White Nancy’ spotted deadnettle ( Lamium maculatum)
Spots, splashes, streaks, and margin markings: These and other sorts of variegation add an extra element of interest to lovely leaves. The visual effect can range from subtle to gaudy, and from elegant to somewhat sickly, depending on the pattern, intensity, and colors. If you’re a collector, you may adore them all; if you’re a bit more discerning, you may appreciate some kinds and be appalled by others. Whatever your preferences, variegated plants can offer some intriguing design possibilities if you use them wisely.
Variegated dandelion ( Taraxacum officinale): a multicolor only a collector could love. ‘Spider’s Web’ Japanese aralia ( Fatsia japonica) can be very attractive when it’s well grown, but when I try it, it just looks like it has a bad case of spider mites. First, consider the site. Seen from a distance, all but the boldest variegates tend to have a pale or washed-out look: fine if you want a soft color but disappointing if you want to appreciate the details of the markings. Now, that’s my idea of a gorgeous plant: the emphatically variegated ‘Axminster Gold’ Russian comfrey ( Symphytum x uplandicum)–here paired with ‘Auslese’ lady’s mantle ( Alchemilla mollis).
Up close, you can see that the narrow blades of ‘Morning Light’ miscanthus ( Miscanthus sinensis) have fine white striping. From more than a few feet away, the whole plant looks pale green to gray-green. The foliage of variegated wayfaringtree ( Viburnum lantana) is heavily splashed and speckled with yellow, but there’s not much contrast with the green parts, particularly when the leaves are young. Very subtle variegation patterns, and any markings on small leaves, show off best at very close range, so consider keeping them close to a path or bench. Seen across the garden, variegated wayfaring tree ( Viburnum lantana ‘Variegatum’) doesn’t even look multicolored: just an overall greenish yellow.
The markings on ‘Verschuren’ hybrid tea rose can be so subtle that they’d get lost in a large border. Each leaflet of variegated rock cotoneaster ( Cotoneaster horizontalis ‘Variegatus’) is edged with white. The leaves are abundant, but you’ll miss their elegant edging unless you keep the plant close to a path. Containers offer excellent opportunities for showcasing special variegates. Give each one its own pot, or have fun experimenting with combinations. Variegated lemon thyme ( Thymus x citriodorus ‘Variegatus’) is another tiny-leaved beauty that shows off best along a path, atop a wall, or in a container.
This container combination is pretty wild, but I think it works: ‘Pink Ruffles’ coleus and ‘Cherry Sparkler’ fountain grass ( Pennisetum setaceum) with ‘Titan Rose’ rose periwinkle ( Catharanthus roseus). Even when not in bloom, variegated angel’s trumpet ( Brugmansia suaveolens ‘Variegata’) is showy; in full flower, it’s outstanding. Here’s it’s in a large container, underplanted with ‘Everest’ sedge ( Carex oshimensis). When you’re choosing partners for variegated plants, there are several ways to go. First, you could let the variegate be the star by setting it among solid-colored foliage. The solid greens of baby’s tears ( Soleirolia soleirolii), podocarpus ( Podocarpus macrophyllus), and false aralia ( Dizygotheca elegantissima) make a quiet setting for the pink-, white-and-green foliage of variegated artillery plant ( Pilea microphyllus ‘Variegatus’) in this tiny tabletop container.
‘Golden Tiara’ hosta with Allegheny pachysandra ( Pachysandra procumbens) ‘Kosmic’ variegated kale in the side garden at Hayefield ‘Snow Cap’ sedge (C arex siderosticha) with ‘Luxuriant’ bleeding heart ( Dicentra) ‘Gold Edge’ golden dewdrop ( Duranta erecta) between ‘Black Velvet’ nasturtium ( Tropaeolum majus) and ‘Big Red Judy’ coleus Golden Alexander yellow loosestrife ( Lysimachia punctata ‘Walgoldalex’) in front of ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlia Another option is to use variegated plants as companions for equally colorful partners. Create sophisticated effects by matching the colors of blooms or solid leaves with the markings of a variegate: white flowers with white-edged leaves, for example, or golden leaves with yellow-spotted foliage. ‘Dancing Flames’ scarlet sage ( Salvia splendens) with ‘Purple Knight’ alternanthera ( Alternanthera dentata)
‘Silver and Gold’ yellow-twig dogwood ( Cornus sericea) with ‘David’ garden phlox ( Phlox paniculata) ‘White Swan’ purple coneflower ( Echinacea purpurea) between pineapple mint ( Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’) and Creme de Mint dogwood ( Cornus alba ‘Crmizam’) Golden raspberry ( Rubus idaeus ‘Aureus’) with leopard plant ( Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’) Golden Shadows pagoda dogwood ( Cornus alternifolia ‘Wstackman’) with lady’s mantle ( Alchemilla mollis) Or, use variegates to complement flowering or leafy companions in other colors: vivid variegation with intense or in-your-face flowers, and softer markings with pastel partners. ‘Axminster Gold’ Russian comfrey ( Symphytum x uplandicum) with ‘Harvest of Memories’ bearded iris
‘Gold Edge’ golden dewdrop ( Duranta erecta) with ‘Profusion Cherry’ zinnia and Carita Purple 09 angelonia ( Angelonia angustifolia ‘Car Purr09’) ‘Queen of Night’ tulip in front of ‘Axminster Gold’ Russian comfrey ( Symphytum x uplandicum) Variegated sweet iris ( Iris pallida ‘Variegata’) with ‘Rosish One’ cottage pink ( Dianthus) If you’re looking for combination inspiration, it can come from even a single variegated plant: just look to its flowers, fruits, or stems as well as its leaves. ‘Axminster Gold’ Russian comfrey ( Symphytum x uplandicum) with Guinevere floribunda rose ( Rosa ‘Harbadge’, also known as Louisa Stone)
The pink tails of ‘Shiro-gane Nishiki’ kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate ( Persicaria orientalis) are a pleasing match for its cream- to white-variegated leaves. The fine ivory edge on the leaves of ‘Prairie Frost’ purple coneflower ( Echinacea purpurea) adds an extra touch of charm to its pink blooms. You can enjoy the same color pairing by choosing a separate pink-flowered partner, such as ‘Nora Barlow’ columbine ( Aquilegia) with this variegated mock orange ( Philadelphus coronarius ‘Variegatus’). How about a pink garden phlox ( Phlox paniculata) with snow-on-the-mountain ( Euphorbia marginata)? Pink crosswort ( Phuopsis stylosa) with ‘Kwanso Variegated’ tawny daylily ( Hemerocallis fulva) Common chives ( Allium schoenoprasum) with white-variegated sweet iris ( Iris pallida ‘Argentea Variegata’) I have to admit that I’m not crazy about red with white or cream, but a plant’s gonna do what a plant’s gonna do. This is ‘Stars and Stripes’ starflower ( Pentas lanceolata) paired with solid green curly parsley. The scarlet blooms of ‘Fire of Love’ Greigii tulip are undeniably showy against its multicolored foliage. ‘Cherry Brandy’ Gloriosa daisy ( Rudbeckia hirta) against ‘Axminster Gold’ Russian comfrey ( Symphytum x uplandicum) Variegated small-leaf sage ( Salvia microphylla ‘Variegata’) with ‘Autumn Joy’ stonecrop ( Sedum) White with orange is another pairing I normally wouldn’t make on purpose, but some plants do it up right. Here, the bright orange fruits of variegated false Jerusalem cherry ( Solanum capsicastrum) stand out among the white-edged leaves. The slightly softer orange blooms of ‘Alaska Salmon’ nasturtium ( Tropaeolum majus) pair nicely with its cream-splashed leaves. The orangey blossoms of ‘SunPatiens Variegated Spreading Salmon’ impatiens show off well against its yellow-and-green foliage. Pastel peach ‘Odysseus’ Dutch hyacinth is a good match for buttery yellows, like the striping on variegated sweet iris ( Iris pallida ‘Variegata’). Blue and purple-blue flowers are beautiful against almost any sort of variegation. This ‘Hopley’s Variegated’ dayflower ( Commelina communis) mostly looks pale green to yellow green unless you’re just a few inches away. ‘Summer Sorbet’ blue mist shrub ( Caryopteris x clandonensis) is lovely in leaf and even better in bloom, when its fluffy blue flowers complement the yellow-edged foliage. I’m particularly fond of pairing blue flowers with white-marked partners. Here’s ‘Brookside’ hardy geranium ( Geranium) winding up through a variegated red-twig dogwood ( Cornus sericea). The rich purple-blue bells of ‘Sarastro’ bellflower ( Campanula) with brightly variegated ‘Loraine Sunshine’ oxeye ( Heliopsis helianthoides) ‘Blue Ice’ bluestar ( Amsonia) with cream-striped ‘Evergold’ sedge ( Carex oshimensis) Common ajuga ( Ajuga reptans) with variegated Japanese iris ( Iris ensata ‘Variegata’) ‘Jade Frost’ sea holly ( Eryngium planum) against giant larkspur ( Consolida ajacis) ‘Silver and Gold’ yellow-twig dogwood ( Cornus sericea) with ‘Caradonna’ salvia Though they’re plenty bright, the yellow blooms of Golden Alexander yellow loosestrife ( Lysimachia punctata ‘Walgoldalex’) are hardly visible among the yellow-edged leaves. With the flowers and leaves on different plants, the yellows of ‘Full Moon’ coreopsis with ‘Axminster Gold’ Russian comfrey ( Symphytum x uplandicum) each show to advantage. The brilliant yellow daisies of ‘Loraine Sunshine’ oxeye ( Heliopsis helianthoides) are bold enough to show up against its white-variegated foliage. Soft yellow flowers, like those of ‘Bouquet Cream’ calibrachoa, pair prettily with cream to ivory markings, like those of variegated hebe ( Hebe speciosa ‘Variegata’). White flowers on white-variegated plants (as on Polygonatum x hybridum ‘Striatum’) are pretty much superfluous, unless you’re right up close. Another white-on-white variegate that looks pretty much the same whether or not it’s in bloom: variegated fuzzy deutzia ( Deutzia scabra ‘Variegata’) For something different, challenge yourself to combine two or more variegated plants. The trick is to get enough contrast in the leaf sizes or shapes; otherwise, the grouping will just look like a chaotic blob. When white flowers and white-variegated leaves are on different plants, each tends to show off better. This duo shows a white hybrid hellebore ( Helleborus x hybridus) with ‘Variegated Kwanso’ tawny daylily ( Hemerocallis fulva).
Here’s a good example of a not-so-good combination: ‘Snow Fairy’ bluebeard ( Caryopteris divaricata) with Mezoo Trailing Red aptenia ( Dorotheanus bellidiformis ‘Mesbicla’). Though the bluebeard has a bit more variegation, the colors, patterns, and leaf shapes are too similar to provide enough contrast. There are four variegated plants in this photo, but the only one that really stands out is the ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ basil in the lower left. You have to look closely to appreciate the variegated tomato at the top (‘Variegata’, also known as ‘Splash of Cream’), the ‘Fish’ pepper in the lower middle, or the ‘Variegated African Blue’ basil in the bottom right corner. A pairing of equally bold variegates: variegated sweet iris ( Iris pallida ‘Variegata’) with ‘Axminster Gold’ Russian comfrey ( Symphytum x uplandicum). Their colors are very similar, but the heights and textures are different enough that I think the combo works–especially if you see it from this angle, so they don’t overlap. This container combination of variegated Tasmanian flax lily ( Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’) and ‘Burgundy Glow’ ajuga ( Ajuga reptans), with a bit of ‘Harlequin’ wintercreeper ( Euonymus fortunei) at the back, is all pretty similar color-wise, but the distinctly different leaf shapes add just enough contrast. Another variegated pairing–‘Snow Cap’ sedge ( Carex siderosticha) and variegated Solomon’s seal ( Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’)–with similar colors but sufficiently different intensities and leaf shapes. Adding a solid-colored plant to a variegated pairing can be enough to balance the bold markings. This trio features white-variegated sweet iris ( Iris pallida ‘Argentea Variegata’) and ‘Frosty Pearl’ euonymus ( Euonymus fortunei) with European wild ginger ( Asarum europaeum). Showy flowers can also help to balance equally eye-catching foliage, as in this pairing of ‘Frosted Flames’ dwarf snapdragon ( Antirrhinum majus) and ‘Alaska’ nasturtium ( Tropaeolum majus). In this variegated pairing of ‘Alaska’ nasturtium ( Tropaeolum majus) with ‘Goshiki’ false holly ( Osmanthus heterophyllus), the nasturtium’s flowers are the star. Well, that was an enjoyable foray into color on an otherwise very white day here in PA. Here’s hoping that you’re enjoying a “normal” spring wherever you are, and that we all have flowers to enjoy by April’s Bloom Day. The pink spikes of angelonia add some much-needed color to this pairing of variegated Japanese iris ( Iris ensata ‘Variegata’) and snow-on-the-mountain ( Euphorbia marginata).
Aw, poor little alpaca. How sad that he doesn’t have a cozy barn with soft bedding and plenty of snacks and warm water. Oh, wait…he does. Hmmph. Who cares about flowers? I just want my green grass back!