On dark, gloomy days variegated plants can leap out and lift your spirits. Let’s have a look at them.

Variegated plants are those whose individual leaves have more than one colour. These colours are commonly green and cream, pink, purple or yellow. There may be one colour around the edge of the leaf and splashes of colour across it.

Most variegated plants have just two colours but some have three, such as the green, white and purple of tricoloured sage.


Tricoloured sage, United States Botanic Garden, Washington D.C. © David Stang and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

Variegation is caused either by natural mutations in pigment or by the particular structure of a plant’s leaves and how they reflect light.

Shoots with attractive variegation can be propagated to make a new plant. Some of the most popular variegated plants look wonderful but some, it has to be said, just look poorly. Perhaps these weren’t really worth propagating in the first place.

Love it, hate it, can take only a little of it?

People hold surprisingly strong feelings about variegation. They range from the ‘Bring It On’ wing to the ‘Not Over My Dead Body’ faction. Here’s Alys Fowler on the subject.

Personally, I think that a little variegation can go a long way but that it really comes into its own in winter time. The much plainer winter background gives variegated leaves little to argue with and it’s a quieter place for us to enjoy and appreciate their mixture of colours.

Four variegated plants for winter

Spindles (aka Euonymus) are very easy to grow. Their variegation lightens the garden on even the darkest of days. Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ stays small and has yellow-margined leaves which are tinged pink in winter. Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’ is a much loved plant and is easy to grow in containers and borders. There are other varieties too – all good.


Euonymus fortunei 'Silver Queen'. © Trzmielina Fortune'a and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

Variegated ivy can really lighten a dark wall, and give that lush feeling. Successful window boxes need a degree of abundance and a small-leaved variegated ivy spilling over the edges takes you a long way there.

Variegated hollies are good. The male holly ‘Silver Queen’ (I know, it makes no sense) is a dense small evergreen tree or shrub with purple young shoots. Young leaves are tinged with pink and mature leaves are dark green with a broad cream margin. The female holly ‘Golden King’ (no sense here, either) is a small bushy evergreen tree or shrub. Its leaves are edged with bright yellow.

Aeron celyn / 'Golden King' holly berries. Variegated

Aeron celyn / 'Golden King' holly berries near Chwilog, Gwynedd. © Alan Fryer and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ Thanks to geograph.org.uk

Indoors, one or more overwintering variegated pelargoniums give a jazzy look. I have these and small-leaved variegated ivies on the window sill that faces north-west.

Remember golden and silver leaved plants for winter light too.

Why does variegation sometimes disappear?

Pigment mutations causing variegation aren’t always stable and plants sometimes try to revert to having all-green leaves. Remove this growth because it's more vigorous than variegated growth and will soon take over.

Whatever the weather, there is a plant that looks wonderful. Consider a variegated plant to lighten dark days.