A Coating of Many Colors

Combining variegated leaves throughout the garden yields a dynamic landscape

Splashed with color or precisely patterned, variegated foliage dresses some of the garden’s most free-spirited plants in boho-chic style. Leaf variegation in these fashionable finds occurs naturally as mutations or as a response to viral infections. Green pigment can be masked by other colors or be absent from the whole leaf or just part of it. Plant breeders often select these novelties to bring to market, to the delight of garden designers like Karen Chapman.

“They are inspiration plants — a spring-board for design,” says the co-author of Fine Foliage (St. Lynn’s Press, 2013). “Variegated plants make great focal points that just scream ‘Look at me!’”

For every plant passion or garden style, there are scores of variegated options. T ry
showy varieties of local garden stalwarts such as ‘Raspberry Ice’ bougainvillea, ‘Eureka Variegated Pink’ lemon, ‘Golden Zebra’ daylily, ‘Lemon Lime’ heavenly bamboo and ‘Medio-picta Alba’ agave.

Among tropicals, opt for the drama of elephant ears or caladiums with speckled, blotched, blushed or iced leaves that seem positively psychedelic. In native gardens, ‘Diamond Heights’ Carmel creeper adds a year-round golden glow.

In addition to aeoniums, echeverias and other painterly succulents, water-wise choices include ornamental grasses like ‘Morning Light’ silver grass, yellow-edged ‘Overdam’ reed grass, variegated Japanese sedge or bold ‘Fireworks’ fountain grass that explodes with white, green, pink and burgundy-striped leaves.

“I like the new ‘Meerlo’ lavender with its cream-edge leaves,” Karen says. “Also, don’t overlook drought-tolerant coprosmas with their glossy leaves. There are many choices like ‘Tequila Sunrise’ and ‘Coppershine.’

In gardens, variegated foliage lights up dark corners, awakens staid planting combos and draws the eye to garden destinations. Variegation intensified by weather also creates seasonal interest, a key to dynamic landscapes.

Place variegated plants near a garden path or entry where their artsy good looks are easily admired.

“More than 20 feet away and you’ll have a Monet moment,” Karen says. “Everything in the garden starts with the right plant — or leaf — in the right place.”
A jumble of variegated plants, though, is “like viewing a pot of jellybeans — exhaust-ing to look at,” Karen warns. “Instead, work to use these showoff plants strategically to make an impact.”

Before picking companion plants, “shine a spotlight on the variegated leaf,” she advises. “Maybe you see pink splashes or purple spots. Then select other plants with foliage or flowers that blend or contrast.”

Karen recalls one combo that caught her eye while she was in San Diego to photograph gardens for Foliage First (to be published next year).

“There was a shrubby, variegated myrtle with cream-edged leaves and an acacia with yellow flowers. In the middle was this hulking agave with steel blue blades,” she says. “That was dramatic enough to get me out of bed at 5 a.m. to get the shot.”

But design rules — like no pinstripes with polka dots — are meant to be broken, Karen acknowledges.

“We’ve found that two variegated plants can work together if they have a common thread. For example, if one plant is predom-inately green with gold variegation and the other is the reverse, they definitely look
cool together.” ❖



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