Variegated plants may revert to show true colors

  • Article by: NANCY ROSE , Contributing Writer
  • Updated: July 13, 2004 - 11:00 PM

The plants in the urn include variegated crocodile ivy geranium, algerian ivy and verbena pansy.

Photo: Mike Zerby, Star Tribune File Photo

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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')

Hosta (many variegated cultivars)

Variegated Solomon's seal (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum')

Variegated obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana 'Variegata')

'Nora Leigh' and 'Becky Towe' garden phlox (Phlox paniculata)

Frosty Morn sedum (Sedum 'Frosty Morn')

Variegated feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Overdam')

Variegated miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegatus')

Q Our lawn is looking spotty and we were told it's because we didn't rake the leaves off the lawn last fall. Could that be the reason?

A Yes. Raking up leaves in the fall can be quite a chore, but it is important to remove leaves from the lawn. Leaves left on the lawn over winter get wet and mat together, which can smother the grass and promote development of turf diseases.

If you have a thick layer of fallen leaves in the autumn, do rake them up. Composted leaves make great mulch for perennial and shrub beds, so shred and compost the leaves if you can.

If you have only a scattering of leaves left on the lawn in late fall, you can probably chop them up finely enough by running your lawn mower over them. Small leaf bits will readily break down, adding nutrients to the lawn.

If you plan to reseed thin areas of your lawn, wait until late August to mid-September. Grass seed planted then should grow readily and be well-established before the ground freezes.

Nancy Rose is a horticulturist, writer and photographer. To ask her a gardening question, call 612-673-9073 and leave a message. She will answer questions in this column only.

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