A ray of win­ter sun­shine


HAV­ING just passed the win­ter sol­stice and still in the depths of those short days and long dark nights any bright­ness we can get in the gar­den is wel­come. Although not uni­ver­sally loved by all gar­den­ers, some find them gaudy and un­nat­u­ral, ever­green var­ie­gated plants can be just the tonic to help lift the gloom at this time of year.

A var­ie­gated plant. both ever­green that keep their leaves in win­ter, and de­cid­u­ous that lose their leaves in win­ter, have coloured patches on the leaves. This ap­pears promi­nently as vari­a­tions of green, yel­lows and creams but can be sil­vers, pinks and hues of red.

In the vast majority of cases this is a ge­netic anom­aly and is caused when the plants chloro­phyll and pig­ment lev­els are al­tered. A mu­ta­tion if you like. It very rarely oc­curs in the wild but in nurs­eries where plants are closely packed to­gether when grow­ing it is far more common. It can be ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered th­ese days and cer­tainly nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring plants with var­ie­ga­tions have been en­cour­aged and cross bred by nurs­ery­men to pro­duce brighter more con­sis­tent colours.

Var­ie­ga­tions can show up as spots and speck­les, streaks or as bolder group­ings of blocks of colour. It all de­pends on the ge­netic vari­a­tions at play. Dif­fer­ent leaves on the same plant can vary con­sid­er­ably in the amount of var­ie­ga­tion they carry. In some cases whole leaves may be one colour, all cream or yel­low, while oth­ers leaves on the same plants have shades of green through them as well.

Re­ver­sion is po­ten­tial prob­lem for var­ie­gated plants. This is when the ge­netic make up changes again and causes the plants to start pro­duc­ing its usual green leaves at the ex­pense of the dec­o­ra­tive and colour­ful var­ie­gated ones. All var­ie­gated plants are sus­cep­ti­ble to this but some more than oth­ers. I have found that the large leafed va­ri­eties are more likely to re­vert, like­wise those that have an outer green mar­gin to the leaf are less likely to have this prob­lem. The prob­a­bly cause of re­ver­sion is the plants sur­vival instincts. A plant with less chloro­phyll is go­ing to find it harder to to pro­duce en­ergy for the plant hence it starts to put out its nat­u­ral green leaves again. A plant that is strug­gling or in heavy shade may also be en­cour­age to re­vert, this again is a re­ac­tion in an at­tempt to pro­duce more avail­able en­ergy. Any re­ver­sion growth should be pruned out im­me­di­ately and dis­cour­aged.

In win­ter the it’s the ever­green var­ie­gated plants have a chance to lit­er­ally shine. Some are quite brash and do verge on the gaudy but at this time of year I think they can be very use­ful in the gar­den and their place fully jus­ti­fied. Other species are more sub­tle,dare I say so­phis­ti­cated. Th­ese tend to be the smaller leafed va­ri­eties that can give a hazy smoky ef­fect from a dis­tance. Some­thing else to bare in mind when se­lect­ing var­ie­gated plants is whether have con­spic­u­ous flow­ers or not. This can bring a new dy­namic into play in as much as you have the added sea­sonal boost of the flow­ers and also the con­trast in­ter­est be­tween the blooms and the leaves.

Some of the brasher var­ie­gated plants I would rec­om­mend in­clude the fol­low­ing:

Elaeag­nus x ebbingii ‘Gilt Edge’ a large shrub with very bold yel­low out­line mar­gins. It’s a fan­tas­tic coastal plant and keeps its colour well in light shade. Its sis­ter plant Elaeag­nus pun­gens ‘Mac­u­lata’ has more cen­tral yel­low mark­ings with green leaf edges.

Grisellinia lit­toralis ‘Var­ie­gata’ is a good spec­i­men shrub but too strong vis­ually for hedge plant­ing for my tastes. It has creamy yel­low outer leaf mar­gins and makes a large shrub. All have in­con­spic­u­ous flow­ers.

More del­i­cate look­ing are the Pit­tospo­rums that have the added bonus of small choco­late coloured fra­grant flow­ers in spring. P. tenuifolium ‘Gar­netii’ has cream var­ie­ga­tions tinged pink in win­ter. P. tenuifolium. ‘Sil­ver Queen’ has sil­very grey to cream mar­gins. Both make large shrubs.

Var­ie­gated Pieris have the added bonus of not only hav­ing sub­tle vari­a­tions of sil­very cream var­ie­ga­tions but pro­duce startling red new growth and small pen­dant flow­ers in spring. P. ‘Flaming Sil­ver’ and P. japon­ica ‘Var­ie­gata’ are two lovely plants for a neu­tral to acid soil.

Phormium cookianum ‘Cream De­light’ is a grassy plant with stripy cream mar­gins run­ning the length of the broad grass blades. Gives lovely move­ment in the wind and 1 me­tre high.

The much ma­lign Ivy can give a colour­ful lift to a dark wall. Hed­era ‘Sul­phur Heart’ and ‘ Gloire de Marengo’ are two large leafed yel­low and cream var­ie­gated va­ri­eties re­spec­tively.

But top of my list are Coro­nilla glauca ‘Var­ie­gata’ a small ten­der shrub with pretty cream mar­gins with yel­low flow­ers in late win­ter and Azara mi­cro­phy­lus ‘Var­ie­gata’ an el­e­gant small tree with hazy cream var­ie­ga­tions.

Brighten up win­ter by plant­ing a lit­tle sun­shine.

TOP: Coro­nilla glauca ‘Var­ie­gata’. ABOVE LEFT: Plant of the week Gar­rya elip­tica. ABOVE RIGHT: Elaeag­nus pun­gens ‘Mac­u­lata’.

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