All About Variegation in Houseplants
Variegated plants are always in high-demand, and it’s easy to see why! They are chosen and bred for their beautiful, unique coloring. They stand out on a shelf surrounded by all-green plants. And due to their rarity and the difficulty in reproducing many of them, they can cost more than their green relatives.
Because of this fact, there are a number of plant scammers out there, so it is a good idea to have a general understanding of the different types of variegation and what creates the beautiful patterns. You’ll be able to make better buying decisions, and we’ll also show you how to take the best care of variegated plants so they continue to look unique.
Types of Variegation (and the Science Behind It)
Genetic / Pattern
Genetic variegation usually shows up as a characteristic pattern, similar on each leaf. Maranta, Sansevieria, and Coleus are all examples of this form of variegation. The cells that make up the leaves create different pigments according to their chromosomal makeup, making this a stable form of variegation.
Chimeric / Mutant
Chimeric variegation occurs randomly due to genetic mutations in a plant. The variegated plant will have two separate genetic makeups, one of which is usually albino. The two colors can be seen swirling up the stems, and being expressed differently on each leaf. Plants with chimeric variegation can only be reproduced by cloning, or propagating through vegitatitive cuttings, because the genes are not stable and are not guaranteed to be passed down through other means of reproduction, and can revert to all green. Many desirable aroid varieties have a form of chimeric variegation.
Reflective / Blister
Although technically genetic, reflective variegation is unique in the way it functions. A small air pocket, or blister, forms between layers of the leaf. Light refracts and reflects through the air pockets and appears to give the leaf a silvery, shiny appearance. Scindapsus Pictus (the Satin Pothos) is a well-known example.
Viral / Pathological
Viral variegation has a pathological cause, oftentimes a form of Mosaic Virus. Once a plant is infected, the virus can affect the chromosomal makeup of certain cells, giving the plant a patterned appearance. Assuming the plant survives the virus, it can then be reproduced to carry on the same appearance. Hostas are an example of variegation caused by a virus, Hosta Mosaic Virus.
Artificial / Chemical
This type of variegation is short-term and not a “natural” characteristic of the plant. One example of this is the application of ethylene to the Pink Congo Philodendron in an effort to simulate the Pink Princess Philodendron, which sellers then can charge a lot more for. Once the ethylene (which is the same chemical that ripens fruit, among other things) wears off, the plant reverts back to its original color.
How to Care for Variegated Houseplants
If you fall for a Pink Congo/Princess Scam, unfortunately there isn’t anything you can realistically do to preserve the pink coloring on the leaves. Eventually, it will simply return to green. Genetic variegation and reflective variegation are stable, on the other hand.
Chimeric variegation and viral variegation may or may not be stable, and usually have to be reproduced through vegitative cuttings because seeds are not guaranteed to grow with the same coloring. They also have higher light requirements compared to green versions of the same plant, but otherwise have the same basic care requirements.
Basically, plants are green because they produce chlorophyll, which is what allows them to photosynthesize sunlight into usable energy. The less green on a leaf, the less it can photosynthesize, so it needs that much more light than otherwise. In general, more light, more variegation.