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’.