Variegated Plants: The Meaning Behind the Term & Why they Cost so Much
Posted on February 28 2021
Are you guilty of google-stalking Variegated plants? Everyone in the plant community is smitten with white splashes, stripes, and polka dots on their leafy collection. Why exactly are these plants so hard to come across? And what gives them their alluring coloration?
The Technical Meaning of “Variegated” Plants
The word for “Variegated” comes from the Latin word “variegatus,” meaning “made of various sorts of colors,” which can apply to many varieties of plants. Why? Many plants fit the description of being, essentially, multi-colored.
What Does it Mean if a Plant is “Naturally Variegated”?
For instance, did you know that many members of the Maranta family are technically variegated? These plants naturally come genetically preprogrammed to produce their flashy, multi-colored leaves. This amazing ability is called Pattern-Gene Variegation (aka Pigmented or Natural Variegation).
The ‘Fishbone Prayer Plant’ is one of many that fits this classification, with its purple undersides, lime green topsides, and dark green pattern. Naturally Variegated plants are stable, meaning that they can be reproduced through stem cuttings, leaf cuttings, and seeds.
You may have another unsung, Variegated plant on your windowsill: the Alocasia Polly, which falls under the category of “Reflective or Blister Variegation.”
As unappealing as it sounds, a ‘blister’ is the perfect way to describe this variation. Our plants have a layer of transparent skin on top of their pigmented leaf. In this instance, an air pocket forms between the ‘skin’ and the leaf. This causes a metallic appearance along the veins (such as with the Alocasia Polly) or is spattered throughout (like the Satin Pothos). Since this is another form of Natural Variegation, it can be easily propagated.
What other types of Variegation are there?
Chimeral Variegation is a mutation that gives leaves white, cream, or yellow splashes to otherwise ‘normal’ foliage. It’s the most common type of Variegation and arguably the most sought after. The Philodendron Birkin, Monstera ‘Albo’, and ‘Thai Constellation’ all fall under this category. What’s the science behind it?
Leaves naturally have several layers. “Chimera” (plants that have Chimeral Variegation) happen to have layers that are genetically different, which means that some plant tissues can produce chlorophyll (pigment), while others cannot. These mix-matched layers lead to symmetric leaf patterns or random ones, such as with the Birkin, Albo, and Constellation.
Depending on the number of issue layers involved, Cihimeral Variegation has three categories: mericlinal, periclinal, and sectorial. Many Chimeras are unstable mutations, which means that they can ‘revert’ to their natural state.
Caring for a Chimeral Variegated Plant
Let it Shine (But Not Too Much)
Chimera have less pigment to fuel photosynthesis than their un-variegated relatives, which means these plants need more bright indirect light. Increased lighting will give the chlorophyll ample opportunity to energize your plant.
For instance, the Philodendron Birkin is a Chimeral Variegation of the Philodendron ‘Rojo Congo.’ While the Birkin should never be placed in direct sun, it does require more light than the Congo. If you do not provide it with sufficient lighting, it will start to revert, losing its iconic white pinstripes.
As with any plant, make sure to research its care thoroughly. Each species is different. For instance, the Marble Queen Pothos is highly variegated but does well receiving some direct morning sun. In contrast, the Birkin should never be kissed by full-sun. As a rule of thumb, all-white or mostly-white leaves run a higher risk of sunburn.
If you notice that your mature plant has new growth that has lost its variegation, cut off the green section. Hopefully, this will prevent your plant from fully reverting and give it another shot at producing a variegated stem.
Propagation & Growth Speed
Propagating and reproducing these plants poses a considerable challenge, which is why they are less common and more expensive than their all-green siblings. For instance, only the plants that fit in the Periclinal category will propagate true-to-form from stem cuttings. This means that the other two categories will not remain variegated plants from stem cuttings, leaf cuttings, or seeds.
The good news is, many of the plants on your “Wish List” can be reproduced from stem cuttings. However, there is no guarantee that your new plant baby will keep its parent’s pattern of chimeral variegation. It may come out mostly or all-green.
If you are successful, remember that variegated plants are slow growers. Why? It takes chlorophyll (pigment) to photosynthesize, which produces the plant’s growing energy. Your white leaves or splotches are slowing down the process. It can still work: just be prepared to wait for a while!
Chances are, you (desperately) want to keep the variegation of your plant. Most experts recommend a diluted, balanced 20-20-20 fertilizer for most indoor plants.
However, if your plant is struggling to maintain its variegation, it may mean that it is receiving too much nitrogen. Why? While all plants need nitrogen, it contributes to the development of chlorophyll (pigment). If your plant has excess chlorophyll, it will stop producing those creamy leaves you love. Consider using a fertilizer with less nitrogen content.
Research your plant carefully and avoid using too much fertilizer, as this can burn the roots and cause brown spots on your leaves.
A Lesson in Plant Terminology
The scientific names of plants can confuse even the most experienced plant parent. Generally speaking, when a plant has the italicized word variegata at the end of its scientific name, it is naturally variegated. As an example, the aloe variegata has natural variegation.
In contrast, plants that are mutations or cultivars (bred by scientists) will list the term ‘Variegata’ (capitalized, in single quotations) after the name. Confusing, right? An example of this is the Peperomia Obtusifolia ‘Variegata.’
To make things worse, not every variegated plant has a tell-tale name (like the Philodendron Birkin). But, this can still prove to be a useful tip nonetheless!
Understanding variegation can be a protection in the plant world. Some not-so-reputable sellers will list a plant as “Variegated” in hopes of making them appear more rare and expensive. After reading this article, you are armed with some vital information: just because a plant is variegated doesn’t mean that they are rare, as some are “born” that way and easily propagated.