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Create Drama with Variegated Foliage

For drama in the garden, or maybe just for fun, plant something with variegated foliage. I confess I am immediately drawn to any sort of multi-colored foliage, and my garden shows it. Stripes, splotches and spots create interest where flowers are fleeting in my predominantly shady landscape, and a plant with variegation can light up the darkest corner.

Variegation appears as differently colored areas on leaves or stems, often white or gold, but sometimes pink or purple. Some plants have a variety of shades on the same leaf and can rival any flower for color. These types of plants make good focal points, but too many close together can clash or appear jarring. Many variegated plants look good with solid companions or those whose flowers or leaves match the variegated plant's color markings.The white edging of variegated Japanese pittosporum matches the white flowers of native Eurybia divaricata (White wood aster). Note how the aster's radiant form also repeats the form of the pittosporum.One can also combine variegated plants in a small grouping by repeating the variegated color of one plant in different degree or form in another variegated plant.

The white edging of Variegated Plectranthus is repeated in large splashes on the leaves of Stromanthe tricolor.

These oddities may make a plant desirable to plant collectors, but not everyone likes these types of plants. What about you? The following is a sampling of the variegated plants in my garden; certainly not all of them! Most are hardy in my USDA hardiness zone 7b/8a landscape. 1. Heuchera 'Tiramisu' 2. Hosta 'Francis Williams' 3. Zantedeschia albomaculata 4. Calla lily 'Tropicana' 5. Variegated ivy 6. Nandina 'Firepower'

1. Fatshedera 'Angyo Star' 2. Round-lobed Hepatica 3. Persicaria 'Red Dragon' 4. Variegated Pittosporum 5. Acer palmatum 'Butterfly' 6. Hydrangea macrophylla 'Variegata'

1. Hosta 'June' 2. Cornus florida 'Cherokee Sunset' 3. Trillium cuneatum (Sweet Betsy) 4. Japanese Painted Fern 5. Variegated Winter daphne 6. Heuchera 'Green Spice'

1. Heucherella 'Alabama Sunset' 2. Houttuynia 3. Stromanthe 'tricolor' (not hardy) 4. Carex oshimensis 'Evergold' 5. Persian shield (not hardy) 6. Ficus variegata (not hardy)

1. Cercis canadensis 'Whitewater' 2. Variegated acuba 3. Saxifraga stolonifera (Strawberry begonia) 4. Tricyrtis hirta 'variegata' (toad lily) 5. Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki' 6. Fatsia japonica 'Spider's Web'

What do you think about variegated foliage? Are there some that you love? Make you cringe? My opinion is there must be at least one for everyone. Or in my case, at least thirty!

Have a great week! Deb

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Reader Comments (20)

I don't use variegated plants nearly as much as I should, or could.

I do use Persian Shield, not entirely hardy here but comes back from roots more often than not. I was just looking at it with Purple Heart today and thinking how much I love purple foliage.

August 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNell Jean

What a fab selection you have there! We love variegated plants, some more than others of course. And they give instant contrast too without resorting to flowers :)

August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

I love some, and absolutely dislike others. I find I like white (or other colors) variegation more than yellow.

August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChristi {Jealous Hands}

Excellent post, Deb! Great point that too much can be jarring, but used discreetly, the effect can be pleasing to the eye. I enjoy mixing varieties of Coleus plants in pots, and because of the variation, I barely need to include any flowers, or none at all. Some of the varieties eventually flower, too. Great illustration of your points with your lovely photos.

August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBeth @ PlantPostings

You have a superb collection, they are stunning. I have quite a number, but used in moderation, at one time everything I bought had to be variegated, but then I decided some just look diseased and were pulled out.

August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPauline

Thanks for pointing out what is not obvious to me although I'm not going to publicly admit what was not obvious. I agree with Beth - superb collection. Have you ever thought of adding kiwi to your landscape? One of the varieties has a pink/white/green leaf that is just gorgeous. Can't seem to get it to grow down here. The 'Tropicana' canna should grow here but it croaked.

August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLinda

I don't dislike variegated foliage but in the very intense light I don't think they are as successful as in a garden with more shade. I do like almost all of the examples you have shown and perhaps when I have created more shade in my garden I will be able to use some of them.

August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

oh yes.
The only one we share is the saxifrage.
Green and white Coprosma, Liriope and our Plectranthus.
Multicoloured Hypericum and Pelargonium.
Huge red and green Begonia.

August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Studer

PS my Marble Chips Coprosma sings sweetly in full sun

August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Studer

I love variegated foliage too, although I sometimes think I overdo it. I've never counted the variegated species in my garden - I'd almost be afraid to. I've got 9 Abelia 'Kaleidoscope' and that's just one species. Off hand, I can't even count the number of varieties of variegated Coprosma I have.

August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKris P

Funny you should ask. I like varigated foliage. I think it adds depth and excitement to the garden. It funny tho that I didn't like them at first. Sort of like Chartruese or yellow color in the garden. I used to think it made the plant look sick. Now I love that too.

August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLisa at Greenbow

Great selections of all those variegated plants.
Loved the article.


August 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMeta

Good post, Deb. I agree, variegated foliage does create drama. It adds interest and brightness in shadier spaces. The foliage in a group often has a calming feel too. I don't have much in variegated foliage because my garden is mostly in sun, but do have variegated hosta, helleborus, coral bells and lungwort in the shade.

August 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

You do have a lot of variegation variation Deb. My garden is very small. But I do have a few plants with subtle variegation, like Hepatica, Carex morrowii, Tiarella, Ophiopogon japonicus 'Silver Mist' and autumn ferns.

August 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDenise

I tend to resist variegated foliage because somehow I feel they don't quite fit in an informal garden. Not sure why, though. I do have a green and white variegated Calladium. I do like the Strawberry Begonia, also the Plectranthus and Stromantha.

August 10, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjason

Great post! I have areas which have quite a bit of shade so I really like variegated foliage but definitely the green and white is what works for me. I particularly liked the pittosporum and the white wood aster together. Quite insignificant on their own but a really lovely combination.

Thank you!

August 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKate R

My goodness, you do have a lot of variegation! I am also a fan, but I'll have to do a photo inventory some time just to see how many.

August 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobin

After seeing your striking combinations, I realize that I don't have enough of variegated plants! You shwed some really beautiful plants, Deb! Thank you!

August 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

Nice post Deb, and I can see we have several of them in common, heucheras, daphne, hostas, callas, cannas, acer, trilliums, and tricyrtis are all in my garden plus many more with variegated leaves. I think they add interest, but I have seen a few plants I didn’t like as variegated - variegated rhododendron for example, now to me that just looks wrong, but I suppose it comes down to taste after all!

August 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHelene

Great advice and a nice array of plants to choose from....some I had not even thought about that I have here already!

August 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDonna@Gardens Eye View

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