Variegated Plants & Their Biographies: Definition, The Science & Examples

Variegated plants have become the darlings of Instagram and plant owners.  Variegated plants include any plant that displays various colors on its leaves due to a mutation in the plant’s cells.

They are unfortunately not the easiest to grow either.  This limited supply and ongoing demand mean hefty price-tags of a couple of thousand dollars for the rarest variegated plants.  Fortunately, there are also a whole bunch of beginner and budget-friendly variegated indoor plants for everyone’s taste. 

Read on to understand what is variegation, how do plants become variegated, and what are some of the most common variegated plant examples.

What is Variegation?

The term variegation is a word used to describe the different colored zones found on the leaves and stems of plants.  A lack of chlorophyll (the pigment that gives plants their green color) due to a mutation in the plant’s cells leads to variegation. 

Some plants only have sections of variegation on their foliage or variegation that blends different sections of the plant.  This blending will make variegation appear more subtle, but in other plants, it dominates the appearance of the entire leaf.

Variegation on a leaf can be two-toned, tri-colored, or even quadri-colored.  These color variations can be in the form of splotches, stripes, dots, blocks, and more.

However, variegation doesn’t just appear in green, but in colors such as yellow, cream and even pink.

Types of Variegated Plants

When you think of variegated plants, you’re probably thinking of some random dots and stripes on the plant’s foliage.  However, there are four different types of variegation, each with its distinct features. 

Viral variegation

Viruses can cause natural variegation in plants.  One of the most common viral infections that lead to variegation is the mosaic virus that creates mosaic-like patterns on a plant’s foliage. 

Blister or reflective variegation

Variegation of this type occurs when an air pocket forms on a leaf, causing the lower tissue to contain chlorophyll and the upper to lack it.  This leads to silver or white bright reflective color on those sections of the leaf.  The air pockets can form along the veins on the leaves or in random blotches.

My own Satin Pothos is a great example of reflective variegation:

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Chimeral Variegation 

This variegation is the result of a genetic mutation that leads to a plant creating two different chromosomal makeups.  One chromosomal set can produce chlorophyll, and the other can’t.  This difference creates the yellow or white shapes that mix with the green on plants’ leaves and stems.  

An example of Chimeral variegation is the popular Variegated Monstera.  Chimeric variegation can also be found on plants like the Marble Queen and Golden Pothos varieties.  And I just happen to have a variegated Pothos:

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Pattern-Gene Variegation

This type of variegation occurs naturally and is therefore also the most common.  The pattern on each leaf will look the same as the pattern is written into the plant’s DNA.  Even though this is natural variegation, horticulturists often create cultivars or hybrid species to emphasize these patterns. 

Common examples of this natural variegation include a Magenta Triostar, Silver Evergreen and the Snake Plant.   

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                       Snake Plant Aglaonema Silver Queen

How to Variegate a plant?

There are several reasons why producing variegated plants are more difficult than their non-variegated counterparts. 

One way in which the nursery industry does it is by relying on tissue-culture labs.  This process involves taking small sections of leaf tissue, treating it with hormones, and growing it so that the variegated plant is duplicated.  That’s a very simplified way of explaining a process that is quite complicated and takes a great deal of time.  The Monstera Thai Constellation is one of the most well-known examples of a variegated plant that relies on this tissue culture method.

The remaining variegated plants you can buy have been propagated by nurseries or plant hobbyists using a mutated mother plant. 

It’s very rare that a plant suddenly starts developing variegated leaves, and variegation isn’t easily induced.  The chance of your current house plant becoming variegated is 1 in 100 000.  If it does, a very experienced plant propagator might be able to produce a heavily variegated plant from this spontaneous mutation.  However, this would take an enormous amount of time and know-how. 

So, if you want to obtain one of these beauties for your collection, I’d recommend that you purchase an already variegated plant or a cutting with variegation. 

How to care for variegated plants?

Each type of variegated plant has its own unique needs that you need to consider to ensure it’s happy and flourishing.  Overall, they are known to be more challenging to take care of, so always do your homework before adding one to your collection.  There are, however, a couple of essential facts to keep in mind when caring for variegated plants. 

There is a difference between stable and unstable mutations.  Stable variegation means that if you propagate a plant, the variegation will appear in the new plant. 

Unstable mutations, such as chimeric variegated plants, for example, can revert to a completely green plant if there is a change in conditions, such as being put in a spot without enough light. This is because the green parts that contain chlorophyll make food for the plant but need light to do so.  So, if there isn’t sufficient light, the plant will produce green instead of variegated leaves to survive. 

Horticulturists also advise that you should remove the all-green sections of variegated plants.  This is because once a plant starts producing fully green leaves, it will continue to change to producing green leaves to maximize energy production.  These green leaves just have more energy than the variegated foliage and can end up dominating it. 

In nature, all-green plants outcompete the variegated ones, so you will see more variegated indoor plants than in nature.

Some variegated plants also don’t show strong variegation as juvenile (young) plants, but the variegation becomes more distinct as the plant matures. 

List of Variegated Plants for Beginners

If you’ve been charmed by these unique variegated plants, there are a lot of options, even for complete beginners.  The top 5 beginner-friendly variegated plants that I would recommend are:

Golden Pothos (Epipremnum Aureum) and Satin Pothos (Scindapsus Pictus)

This is easy to care for type of plants that can handle inconsistent watering and a variety of light conditions. 

Snake Plant (Sansevieria)

A very straightforward plant to take care of that will still look great after weeks of neglect.  They can even tolerate low light conditions. 

Red Aglaonema

This is a low maintenance plant that can thrive in almost any climate and light condition.  These hardy plants can easily survive inconsistent water as well.

Tradescantia Zebrina

This is a colorful plant with purple and green stripes on top of the leaf and magenta underneath.  These plants aren’t fussy about light conditions and can tolerate infrequent watering. 

Peperomia Obtusifolia Variegata

Similarly, to other Peperomias, this plant has rather straightforward care requirements.  Only water it once the topsoil has dried out and ensure adequate humidity and light, and your plant should flourish. 

Ficus elastica ‘Tineke’

Another easy plant to grow but do ensure that the plant gets bright enough, indirect light, so it doesn’t lose its variegation.  Upon purchasing this plant, as with the others on this list, always do a bit of extra research to check if there are any special precautions you need to take. 

Popular & Rare Variegated Plants

if you are looking for rare/popular variegated plants, give variegated monsteras & variegated syngoniums a look! They are generally on the pricey side, but they look amazing in your home.

Variegated Plant Biographies:

Although houseplant trends tend to come and go, the love for variegated plants seems to be here to stay for good. With an array of new varieties continuously making it to the market, there definitely is the perfect one for you out there. Check out our other blogs for a more detailed overview of particular varieties: