When searching for houseplants, folks are typically attracted color patterns and leaf shape. These traits are typically stable and reliable when reproduced and propagated. So what does variegated mean? Variegated means irregular coloration in foliage. Understanding the different types of variegation empowers you to grow or purchase the right plant for you. Let’s highlight 3 common types of variegation you are likely to come across. These are genetic, light, and chimeric variegation.
The majority or variegated and patterned foliage plants are genetically stable. These genetic mutations are naturally occurring. An example of genetic variegation is the Apoballis Acuminatissima ‘Lavallee; also known as Purple sword. Regardless of how this plant is reproduced, certain traits are expected. When splitting up this plant thru root division, the resulting plants will display the same or similar colors and patterns. Slight variation from plant to plant is normal. For example, The pattern can have more or less visible details, and some will have slightly more silver expressed. Examples are in the photos below. These subtle differences are minor genetic changes that happen over time.
Another type of genetic variegation is based on light levels. The Philodendron Paraiso Verde is a perfect example. The leaves of this plant have a spotty frog like pattern. This pattern is barely visible when grown in medium or lower light. With high light and some short direct light exposure this pattern will have extreme contrast. This high contrast is the preferred look for this plant. Examples of this provided below
Chimeric variegation tends to be the most desired with collectors. This type of variegation occurs when cells within a plant mutate and others do not. Both sets of cells now containing two different genetic codes live in one organism at once. This phenomenon is not exclusive to plants, but for now lets focus just plants. The causes of most chimeric variegation is typically tissue culture. The reason why is simple, when copying genes at such a mass scale mutations are more likely to occur. One or two out of thousands of clones will have mutations in color expression and leaf shape. These mutations are not desired and usually are discarded in the lab. Some of these genetic changes are not evident at first and enter the market. These plants can then be propagated and curated to express desired traits reentering that same market. The demand for chimeric variants is high, mostly because they aren’t easy to reproduce. Why is it difficult to reproduce? The simple answer is this variegation is unstable. Chimeras cannot reproduce. The plants are not sterile, but rather the desired variegation will not be passed down to the offspring. The original genes minus the secondary set are passed on. For this example we will use the Alocasia Frydek Variegata. If this plant was to flower and produce seed, the seeds would grow as a standard green Frydek. Alocasias can also reproduce with corms. When the corms are grown the resulting plants can be green, slightly variegated, highly variegated, and even all white. These corms are all different because of where on the stem they grew from. Internally the plant has streams and channels containing either sets of cells, original and mutated. If grown out of a section of the stem containing all or mostly original genetics the offspring will be green. If grown out of a section of stem containing both sets of genetics the offspring with also have both sets of genes. The results are another beautifully variegated plant. These results are unpredictable expression. Examples show below.
The unpredictable and unstable nature of chimeric variegation is the primary component of pricing. Some chimeras are ten times or most the cost of the original plant. Others are more widely available thus driving down prices. When investing in one of these plants consider what you want out of it. When collecting chimeras what you see is usually what you get. Meaning if you don’t cut up and propagate the plant, you can enjoy it for what it is. Cutting only if all green or all white/yellow leaves begin to dominate your plant. Mitigating these undesired traits is necessary at times. Folks do this many different ways, Let’s discuss the good and the bad. The two worst practices are removing the all green leaves and increasing light. Removing the green leaves will do NOTHING to the genetics of your plant and will not correct the problem. As previously mentioned light based solutions are only effective on light based variegation. So adjusting light levels will NOT ever affect the color expression of a chimeric variegated plant. The causes of ‘reversion’ are not a mystery. A useful analogy is rolling dice. Every new leaf grows from a node or base stem, and every new node is a roll of the dice. If one die represents green genes and one die represents white/yellow genes, then every roll gives different results. In time the plant may grow all green because most of white/yellow genes are gone. In kind if the plant grows all white/yellow leaves because the green genes were outnumbered. The resulting plant is now unable to photosynthesize and will die eventually.
Variegated plants are more dramatic and desirable in the houseplant market.
What is a variegated plant? Now you know, and understanding what variegation is and how its passed on empowers you as a collector or grower. Knowing how to care for and manage the variegation will also help you enjoy your plants. Where can you find them? We sell many more then the three examples above. Check out our shop to see our entire selection. All our plant are locally grown here in Oahu on the islands of Hawai’i