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Variegated Indoor Plants: Expectations vs Reality

Variegated Indoor Plants: Expectations vs Reality

Variegated plants are some of the most sought after plants in the houseplant community, we are even seeing them sold for a whopping $1800 or more on eBay!

But what is the fascination with variegated indoor plants, what exactly is it and how do we keep their unique variegation alive?

Variegated plant with green and white leaves

Occasionally a plant will produce leaves with white or cream blotches in regular or irregular patches - this is called variegation. This variation is a random chance and infrequently happens.

The word Variegated comes from the Latin word variegatus, which means “made of various sorts of colours.”

So how are there so few variegated indoor plants available?

How does the nursery industry produce plants from the occasional deviation? Tissue culture labs duplicate that plant by taking thin slices of leaf tissue, treating them with certain hormones and end up producing genetically identical plants. Now that all sounds very simple but it takes a lot of time and effort to get that variegation stable.

Often times the variation is unstable and this is why some species, such as Philodendron Pink Princess have such variation in their variegation. Some leaves are all pink, some leaves are pink and brown and some are just brown. Sometimes the juvenile leaves will not have strong variegation but some will become pinker as they age. So the suspense of waiting to see what you get builds as that fresh new leaf slowly unfurls. 

Philodendron Pink Princess an example of pink variegation on green leaves

The more traditional and stable way to achieve variegation is to take cuttings of the branches that have more blotchy variegation in the leaf rather than the all-white form (has no chlorophyll) and just keep building the numbers of plants. This process takes a lot longer to produce volume. Look at the plants stem and try and cut back to the point where there is some white or green variegation, being white on one side and green on the other (for varieties like pink princess it could be a light pink and darker brown on opposite sides of the stem) If you were to cut back your plant from this point it could be an indication that your leaf may unfurl with some variation (could).

Pink and green leaves of a Pink Princess plant

But hang on a minute, how do we actually get the different colours?

The growing tip of the plant carries the DNA code. These special cells called meristems have the ability to send the code to certain cells in the leaf which change its ability to produce chlorophyll. You know chlorophyll? It's responsible for the green pigment in plants, so no chlorophyll means that those cells in the leaves turn white.

Whilst it would be amazing to have a pure white plant, it is not able to survive. Photosynthesis (you remember this from school science), the process where plants make food for themselves relies on chlorophyll, CO2 and the sun, so an all-white, no chlorophyll plant, would mean it would eventually just die.

If we want to get even more high tech, there is a variegation know as chimeral variegation  (sounds like Kia -Meral ). It is a random mutation where a plant contains two sets of DNA code and this means it is more difficult to have a stable form. The best way to get more stability is to do vegetative cuttings and it is still difficult to get Chimeras to grow true to form even using tissue culture. And yes the Variegated Monstera deliciosa is one such chimera.

"The Green substance in leaves (Chlorophyll) traps light energy from the sun, which is then used to combine carbon dioxide and water into sugars in the process of photosynthesis. It is vital for photosynthesis and plant growth.
Incredible example of a variegated indoor plant with large amounts of white in the leaves

Why do some variegated plants revert?

From time to time, you will see a variegated shrub that will produce one green branch. This is referred to as reverting, which means it is going back to the original plant. The plant may do this as a survival tactic - a protective device that allows the plant to adapt or return to a more successful form. Waterlogged plants may also turn back and new shoots often come out green.

This green branch, having more chlorophyll is a much stronger grower and would eventually dominate the rest of the shrub. It's not possible to reverse when this happens, but you can stop it from taking over the rest of the plant. So if you want to keep your variegated plant variegated, make sure you cut out those rogue branches.

How to Keep Your Plant Variegated?

Some plants will have a change in the intensity of their variegation depending on light levels. Some plants respond to darker conditions while others have more intense colour in brighter conditions. However, if a plant does not have the variegation gene (we made that term up) then changing conditions will not make a scrap of difference.

As expectant plant parents, it is with anticipation that we watch each new leaf slowly unravel to reveal it’s unique patterns and colours. So just imagine the first person who had a lovely emerald green monstera deliciosa happily growing in their backyard, when without notice, a new leaf appears and it has blotches of white. A new rare plant has evolved and it’s all yours.

You can view a range of our variegated plant varieties.

All images via Pinterest
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