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What are variegated plants

01:00 Thu 28th Feb 2002 |

A. They are plants whose foliage is variously coloured. The variations can occur around the margins of the leaf as streaks or even spots.

Q.� What causes variegation in foliage

A.� Multicoloured leaves can sometimes be caused by a non-harmful virus, but usually it is the result of mutations in the leaf cells that create what is technically known as a 'periclinical chimera'.

The word comes from the mythical fire-eating creature, part lion, part goat, part serpent but in botanical terms it refers to a plant that has two distinct types of genetic tissues next to each other. The result is you get foliage with differing coloured centres or edges.

Q.� What sort of combinations can you get

A.� The most common combinations are green with either white or yellow, but there are others such as green and pink or silver or mauve and purple and white or silver.

Q.� You hear about variegated plants reverting. What's that all about

A.� Variegation in plants in often unstable. Many of the variegated plants on the markets are the results of freak occurrences, called 'sports', within normally green leaved plants. These sports are often easily propagated and put into mass production from cuttings.

However, many will still develop the odd totally green leaf shoot that are stronger than their variegated neighbours as they contain more chlorophyll, the essential element in photosynthesis, and so grow faster and stronger.

If these all green shoots are not removed as they emerge they will gradually take over. A simple snip of the secateurs, cutting back as close to the stem as possible, will help keep the variegation dominant.

Q.� How and where do gardeners use them

A.� That is entirely a matter of personal taste. There are still those who prefer not to have any variegation at all, as if it is in some way impure compared to classic green foliage. On the other hands there are many gardeners who plant as many as they can for maximum variety and exotic effect.

The general consensus, however, seems to be to use them but use them sparingly. Variegated plants like varieties of holly and ivy are especially good for providing interest and colour to the winter garden, but wouldn't have the impact if they were surrounded by more variegation on all sides.

Classical use of variegated plants tends not to mix different colour variations such as green and yellow with pink and white. It usually insists on not planting variegated specimens side by side but to surround them on either side with green leaved plants to maximise their effect and enable you to look at them individually.

If you are going to put variegated plants in a mixed border they are commonly used as a backdrop to flowers rather than slung in the midst of them.

Classic combinations include blue flowers against golden variegated leaves, red flowers in front of purple variegated leaves to create a 'hot' feel or whites against predominantly green mixes for a more subtle effect.

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By Tom Gard

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