Variegated plants -- trees, shrubs, perennials, even ornamental grasses -- are attention grabbers in the garden. These often showy plants sport leaves that are edged, streaked or striped with white, cream, gold, gray, pink or some combination of the above. However lovely they are, there is one thing that they are not: normal.
Variegated plants are mutations of green-leafed species. They may occur as seedlings or from branch sports (mutated branches on otherwise green plants). In many plant species, it's not unusual to see an occasional variegated seedling among hundreds of normal seedlings. But if left to nature, most of these variegated seedlings would die out because they are less vigorous than their green-leafed kin.
Here's why: Any section of a leaf that is not green lacks chlorophyll, the green pigment that's an essential part of the process of photosynthesis.
With less of the leaf able to photosynthesize, a variegated leaf can't produce as much food energy and so variegated plants tend to grow more slowly.
Because we gardeners fancy these plant oddities, though, breeders have carefully nurtured and propagated variegated plants over the years.
And while they've produced plants with a range of colors and intricate patterns, the stability of variegation varies among plants.
In other words, some variegated plants have the tendency to revert to their all-green form.
Variegated Norway maple (Acer platanoides 'Variegatum' or 'Drummondii'), for example, is notorious for reverting to green foliage. The green-leafed branches grow more vigorously and can soon dominate the variegated portion of the tree. To maintain a variegated Norway maple, you would have to prune out the all-green branches and continue to remove any of these reversions as soon as you notice them.
Mulching the root zone, watering when needed and fertilizing won't prevent the reverted leaves or branches from occasionally popping up, but it will help keep the plant healthy.
Some variegated plants for your garden
Golden Eclipse Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata 'Golden Eclipse')
Golden Shadows pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia 'W. Stackman')
Ivory Halo Tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba 'Bailhalo')
Variegated Tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba 'Argenteo-marginata')
Silver and Gold yellow-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Silver and Gold')
Carol Mackie daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie')
Dappled willow (Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki')
Rose Glow barberry (Berberis thunbergii 'Rose Glow')