Designing With Patterned Foliage: Using Plants With Variegated Leaves

Designing With Patterned Foliage: Using Plants With Variegated Leaves

By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

Plants with patterned foliage can be a lot of fun and can add a whole new dimension of color and texture to your garden. However, if you aren’t careful, too much variegated foliage can be busy and jarring to the eyes. If you’re a fan of variegated foliage, never fear. Read on for tips and strategies for designing with patterned foliage in the garden.

How to Use Patterned Plants

Plants with variegated leaves need to be used strategically for the greatest effect. Here are some tips that can help:

Add a dark background: Show off plants with variegated leaves by planting them in front of a background of contrasting color, such as an evergreen hedge or dark wall. Think about how variegated foliage works together. For instance, plants with pale white or yellow markings really pop amidst foliage with near-black, deep purple or dark green variegations.

Color coordinating works, too. For instance, plants with white flowers and green and white leaves are beautiful in a shady garden. Creamy variegations pair well with creamy pink, peach or yellow.

Grouping variegated plants: Grouping plants with patterned foliage can turn into a mish mash if not done correctly. To make it work, try pairing plants with the same colors but different patterns. For example, a plant with lot of dark green and a touch of creamy white alongside plants with predominantly creamy white and discreet splashes of dark green work well.

Leaf shapes: A variety of leaf shapes will prevent too much sameness when you’re designing with variegated foliage. Try mixing things up, such as a plant with large, palmate leaves against variegated ornamental grass with narrow, arching foliage.

Adding solids: If you like using lots of plants with variegated leaves, the end result can be overwhelming. You can get around this by planting plenty of solid green plants amidst all the variegated foliage.

Up close: Plants with variegated leaves look great when located where you can get a close look, such as in patio containers or hanging baskets, along a path or sidewalk, or at the front of a flower bed. This is especially true of plants with small patterns, while variegated foliage with big, bold variegations look better at a distance of at least 15 ft. (4 m.).

Too much of a good thing: Be careful about too many similar patterns, such as several plants with mottles or splotches. Instead, add variety by pairing small, blotchy patterns next to a plant with bold stripes running down the center or edges of leaves.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Plants aren’t permanent. If you aren’t happy, you can always try something else. Have fun!

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Variegated Foliage forum→What exactly is variegation?

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because I am a plant nerd geek I like to be able to classify my variegated plants into their respective categories when I can.

If you are a geek like me here's some info to help you classify yours

1. Chimeral variegation
caused by a mutation in the meristem where two or more genotypes in the cell layers cause tissue that can produce chlorophyll and tissue that cannot. The meristem is were cell division and active growth happen. Its is made of the root tips, leaf edges, shoot tips and vascular cambrium
There are 3 types of chimeral variegation
a. Periclinal. The most stable form. AN entire layer of the meristem causes the mutation
b. Mericlinal. Unstable, only happens in one portion of the cell layer. This can be a transition state, the meristem can either go into stable periclinal variegation or lose the mutation altogether and revert back to a solid color plant
c. Sectional. also unstable, only half of each cell layer of the meristem carries the mutation. The meristem can either create an all pigmented leaf able to photosynthesize, or an all non-pigmented leaf incapable of photosynthesis.

Chimeras vary widely in stability across the plant spectrum. Variegation in the unstable forms can revert to all green or all non-pigmented (like in the all white leaves of variegated ALocasias or the all pink leaves of Philodendron Pink Princess.) The only way to keep the variegation going sometimes is to prune off the non-chimeral stems below where they started.
Example, Varigated Monstera, variegated ALocasias, Variegated COlocasias

2. Natural/Pattern variegation is a genetic trait in a cultivar that is inherited, and can be fixed by selecting out plants by vegetative division and propagating them by seed. Different cells in the tissue express different colors. Calathea is a great example of this. The pattern is always the same on every plant in a species

3.Transposons
A transposon is a genetic element that can move around. They are sometimes called jumping genes. They can move randomly on the chromosome and make what are called genetic mosaics. The effect created a splashed color. They differ from Chimeras because the pattern is inherited through the seed.

4. Pathogen Infection
Some viruses can cause color variations in plant tissue. Two are the Mosaic virus and the Color Break virus.These are sometimes introduced into plants while in tissue culture on purpose to produce variegation. But this can be unstable and fade over time. It can be made stable sometimes through vegetative propagation.

5. Reflective variegation (also called Blister variegation)
Thi s is where tiny air pockets present between the pigmented lower cell layer and the non-pigmented upper cell layer. This makes a patch of transparency that reflects light and gives a shiny look, or a silver look. It can cover the entire leaf, or be patchy.




Examples of natural/patterned variegation



Example of Transposon variegation


Pathogen infection Example.
This anthurium has the color break virus and its variegation is highly unstable


Blister variegation examples





Hope I didnt geek you guys out too much


And this is the resultant leaf:


10 Variegated Plants for Every Garden

Variegated plants will add visual interest to your garden. Here are just a few favorites to consider including in your landscape design.

Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegata’ / The Unique Plant

Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegata’: Variegated Solomon’s Seal is one of the most brilliant plants for shade. Arching masses emerge with bold green and cream foliage that lasts until frost. The delicate bell like white flowers adorn this tough drought tolerant perennial in spring. The gorgeous foliage contrasts well with Ferns, Hellebores, and Heuchera, making this a perfect choice for the shade garden.

Caryopteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’ / The Unique Plant

Caryopteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’: ‘Snow Fairy’ will brighten your border with variegation that lasts all season. This mounding perennial reaching 4 feet tall and wide combines attractive green and white foliage with dainty blue flowers in late summer. It provides a reliable bold accent in sun to part sun. This shrub-like perennial looks great from mid-spring until the first frost and is drought tolerant and deer resistant.

Daphne odora ‘Wild Winter’ / The Unique Plant

Daphne odora ‘Wild Winter’: This is a stunning new variegated Daphne discovered and recently introduced by local nurseryman Jason Stevens. The fascinating foliage is an interesting mix of green, blue-grey, and cream. Rose pink buds open to white fragrant flowers in February. It was discovered as a sport on the typical green Daphne odora.

Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’ / The Unique Plant

Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’: Variegated Fatsia is the best tropical splash for the shade garden. The large star shaped leaves each have an irregular pattern of green and white that layer together to form a spectacular 4 to 5 feet tall shrub. It loves the dry shade garden and will delight you in late fall with space age clusters of white flowers. This tough and dramatic evergreen is also great in a container.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ / The Unique Plant

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’: ‘Morning Light’ is a favorite ornamental grass because of the great form that brightens the garden. The narrow variegated blades stand upright in a graceful vase shaped form. By late summer the plant is topped with decorative plumes that last for months. This is the last grass we cut back in spring. In sun or part shade this is the grass that never flops and always looks great.

Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’ / The Unique Plant

Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’: ‘Butterfly’ is a small upright Japanese maple with delicate green and cream foliage that becomes sculpture in the garden. The soft bright leaves emerge in spring with rose pink highlights that continue to glow until fall. This small deciduous tree grows slowly reaching 12 feet tall in 10-15 years. The bright airy foliage lightens up the shade garden with a serene presence.

Ilex x ‘Solar Flare’ / The Unique Plant

Ilex x ‘Solar Flare’: ‘Solar’ Flare’ is an elegant gold-margined holly that performs well in our hot southeastern climate. This variegated sport of the popular Oak Leaf Holly reaches 5 to 6 feet tall in 10 years and grows well in part to full sun. Each leaf has a bright gold irregular margin that surrounds a mottled blue-gray-green center. We discovered and named ‘Solar Flare’ and continue to find it a beautiful variegated heat tolerant holly.

Ulmus parvifolia ‘Variegata’ / The Unique Plant

Ulmus parvifolia ‘Variegata’: The Variegated Lacebark Elm stands as one of the most elegant and ethereal trees I have ever experienced. Our original grafted plant came from Pat McCracken. Every spring it delights us with a cloud like canopy of delicate white patterned foliage. This fast growing tree reaches 30 to 40 feet tall with a rounded arching form. The intense speckled variegation on each leaf combines to create a floating cloud that rests over the garden. The Variegated Lacebark Elm is hard to find but the seedlings can resemble the parent and grow quickly.

Carex oshimensis Everest / The Unique Plant

Carex oshimensis Everest: Everest is a new ornamental grass that is fantastic for the shade garden or containers. The blue-green and white variegated sedge sparkles from a distance and lights up the garden. This sport of ‘Evergold’ forms evergreen clumps reaching 1 foot tall and wide. Everest is drought-tolerant and deer resistant.

Phytolacca Americana / The Unique Plant

Phytolacca Americana: We found this variegated pokeweed in Johnston County about 10 years ago. It is called a weed but this is one of the most interesting variegated plants in my garden! I have counted seven shades from green to gold in the center of each leaf and the bright surrounding margin. Tony Avent has introduced a variegated and also a gold cultivar that deserve a place in our gardens.

Joann Currier gardens near Chapel Hill and is the owner of The Unique Plant, a specialty nursery. You can reach her at [email protected] .


See regional picks for variegated plants for shade, and read the article by Andy Brand for even more ideas.

“While the cool, shady areas have provided me with the opportunity to grow some of my favorite genera, they also have presented me with a fair share of challenges. One of the trickiest issues is figuring out how to brighten the border growing under a dense canopy or in those dark corners. Plants with showy flowers are an obvious solution, but usually their effect is transient, and all too often flowering is diminished with too much shade. An even better option is to incorporate plants with variegated foliage and let their leaves of white, cream, gold, and green bring light to the shade.” Read more in Plants That Shine in the Shade.


Watch the video: The Elements and Principle of Floral Design. Pattern 101