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What is Variegated Foliage?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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Variegated foliage is plant foliage which grows in several different colors. Some plants have leaves which may individually vary in color, but more commonly, variegated foliage involves multiple colors on the same leaf. The foliage may be striped, splotched, or edged in a contrasting color. Many gardeners like plants with variegated foliage because it makes a garden look more visually dynamic, and it can relieve the bland effect of monochromatic greenery.

Some plants produce variegated foliage naturally. Tropical plants in particular are famous for their distinctive multi-toned foliage, which can include shades like green, yellow, red, and purple. In other cases, plants are specifically bred to produce special colors of foliage by a nursery. Some plants appear to lend themselves more easily to this than others. Hostas, for example, are famous for their variegated foliage and the many shades which it can take.

Trees, shrubs, grasses, and plants can all be bred to have variegated foliage, and plants suitable for a wide range of zones are available, from succulents for hot, dry climates to variegated ferns for cool, moist ones. House plants such as philodendrons may also have multi-hued foliage. Many garden stores carry an array of plants with variegated foliage, and they are often happy to order particular plants and variations by request, or to offer recommendations to people who are not sure about which plants to purchase.

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In some cases, the focal point of the plant is its foliage, and the foliage may be present year-round, or deciduous, with the plant losing its leaves in the fall. In other instances, a plant may produce flowers, as well. Lilacs with variegated foliage, for instance, have greenery which is attractive to look at for much of the year, paired with colorful scented flowers in the spring.

Gardeners can use plants with variegated foliage to edge a pathway or garden bed for contrast, or they can create a rich bed of color with multi-toned foliage. Mingling multiple varieties can make a more visually interesting display of foliage, as can using plants with monochromatic foliage for variation and contrast.

When selecting plants with variegated foliage, gardeners should think about whether they just want to see foliage, or whether they would like some flowers as well. Another consideration is the size the plants will attain at full growth, along with the water and light needs of the plant. The colors of the foliage are also a consideration, as multi-hued plants can clash with each other if they are not well chosen.

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