Variegated rhododendron leaves

A walk around any garden centre at this time of year will reveal a number of variegated, evergreen shrubs and perennials that catch the eye. And on a recent trip to my branch of a national outlet, this Rhododendron ‘Molten Gold’ (above) did just that, though I’m not sure I liked it.

There’s no doubt about why the stores stock them – with precious little colour in winter and the earliest weeks of spring, gardeners are bound to be attracted by the thought of adding something to brighten the garden. And so, to this end, the plant breeders have been selecting and hybridising plants to engineer varieties with leaves that are edged, blotched, veined or centred with a contrasting colour.

There’s nothing new in this. Such unusual markings on plants have been treasured by gardeners for hundreds of years. But in recent times it seems that their aim is to produce a variegated form of every popular garden plant, regardless of how beautiful and decorative it might be in its UN-variegated form. And to be frank I think there are some variegations that are good, and some that are ghastly.

Now I’m not being snobbish, or a plant purist about this. Anything that encourages people to garden must surely be a good thing. But I’ve been thinking about this for a long time now and have decided that in my book, there are a number of reasons why this plant mutation – for that is what it is – needs to be chosen carefully for the good of our gardens.

Novelty value

As I’ve already mentioned, many of the plants that we grow in our gardens are simply lovely in their own right, without further embellishment. For me there are hundreds of ‘old-favourites’ and thousands of plant species that have incredible beauty and earn their place no matter how commonplace they might seem. But as gardeners we can be like magpies, being attracted to unusual or novelty forms because we think they will set us apart from our friends and neighbours when we show them around our plot.

Not everything that has been grown for variegation, however, is an improvement. Many variegated plants are bred or selected for their foliage alone and therefore have inferior flowers when compared to their plain green cousins. And in a number of instances, light-coloured flowers can be rendered invisible against pale, bicoloured leaves. But you also have to remember that the cream or yellow parts of such plants lack chlorophyll – the pigment that fuels plant growth by catching sunlight and making sugars. As a result, they can often look stunted, appear unhealthy and be prone to damage from frost or scorching in hot weather.

Overall appearance

But it is the effect on the overall appearance of the garden that can be the most problematic for me, not least because no two variegations are ever quite the same. Mixing them together gives a disturbed and unsettled appearance to my eye. If you want to use these plants then my advice is to limit yourself to just one or two different types and repeat them in different parts of the garden to create a more unified look. And make sure that you intersperse variegation with plenty of plain green leaves to set it off to best effect.

Finally, look closely at the form which the variegation takes: I think that leaves that are edged with a different colour often look elegant and refined (like those of the euphorbia shown here); swirled and blotched foliage can look brash and as if it is suffering from disease; while paler vein colouration may give the appearance of your plants being nutrient-starved.

Don’t let me put you off though. Used well, and in moderation, variegated plants will add contrast and variety to any garden. I’ve got a number of them in my own plot. But for me making a plant variegated – like the rhododendron I saw at the garden centre – doesn’t always make it better.

Euphorbia 'Glacier Blue'