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.
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.