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Variegation is the Spice of Life!

Posted on July 24, 2016 at 9:35 AM

So the heat index is 105 degrees F., and your summer flowers have decided that it's too hot to bloom.  What's a gardener to do?  I decided to take a trip to the garden center to find a solution.  The place to go in Kansas City is Family Tree Nursery.  They are known for quality bedding plants with big beautiful flowers.  Surely they would have something that can stand up to the summer heat...and they did.  What I also discovered is that they have a wide assortment of plants with beautiful variegated foliage...plants that would give me color no matter what the temperature.

Every gardener eventually learns that blossoms are fleeting.  Trees, shrubs and perennials may only bloom for a few weeks a year and annuals can often fizzle in the heat of summer.  It is foliage that holds the garden together and colorful foliage adds excitement even when there are no flowers.  I was on the look-out for plants with interesting foliage and quickly found two examples in Family Tree's beautifully landscaped parking area.

Annual ice plant has been around for a long time and has recently seen renewed popularity.  Variegated ice plant, or 'Mezoo,' is a must have for a low maintenance trailing plant in containers, hanging baskets, or as used here, a low annual groundcover.  Its succulent green and white foliage is attractive and the small red flowers are an added bonus.  Being a succulent it is quite drought tolerant.  Another plant that has been popular for several years are the many varieties of sun tolerant coleus.  Here the beautiful mounding habit of coleus 'Marrakesh' has been paired with Scaevola for an interesting effect.  Terra Nova describes 'Marrakesh' as having a "very shy flowering tendency" which means that there will be little dead-heading required.  While I love low-maintenance summer annuals I'm also quite fond of reliable perennials which come back year after year.

Everyone is quite familiar with the hundreds of varieties of variegated hostas which are a mainstay of the shaded garden.  Two other perennial plants that I discovered that will bring both flowers and variegated foliage to the shade garden are Pulmonaria 'Trevi Fountain' and Polemonium 'Touch of Class.'  Pulmonaria, also known as Lungwort, has cobalt-blue flowers in spring.  Polemonium, or Jacob's Ladder, has light-blue flowers in late spring/early summer.  Their variegated foliage brightens up the shade garden when not in bloom.  For a sunnier area I found Sedum telephium 'Autumn Charm.'  This variety of stonecrop has light green leaves edged in cream and blooms late summer into fall with pink flowers that eventually darken to a brick red.

No sunny perennial garden would be complete without some sun-loving grasses.  Arundo donax, or Giant Reed Grass, is a tall grass with bamboo-like foliage.  'Golden Chain' has green and yellow leaves which hold their color all season and tops out at about 7' tall making it an excellent choice for smaller gardens.  The variety 'Peppermint Stick' has beautiful green and white leaves and grows up to 12' tall...very dramatic!  For contrast plant it with the fine textured Miscanthus 'Morning Light.'  'Morning Light' is a hardy maiden grass with narrow green leaves edged in white.  The foliage has an overall silvery appearance.

Two other perennial grass-like plants are variegated Liriope and Acorus 'Ogon' also known as sweet flag.  While not true grasses they give a grass-like appearance and both are short which makes them an excellent choice for edging beds and borders.  Liriope muscari is a clump-forming perennial which produces lilac-purple flowers in late summer.  It is a low-maintenance groundcover or edging plant which can grow in sun or shade.  I use it in my shade garden around  the base of  shrubs.  Acorus 'Ogon' has rich golden-yellow striped leaves and spreads very slowly.  Acorus is a water-loving plant which can be used in a water garden or in wet areas around your yard.  The crushed leaves give off a delightful scent.  Plant it in a part-sun to sun area.

I decided to stroll through Family Tree's nursery department and see what kind of variegated trees and shrubs I might find.  I was not disappointed!  I've always loved dogwoods and I found three variegated varieties that are 'must-haves.'  First is Cornus 'Ivory Halo.'  This is a bush-type dogwood similar to red twig dogwood but not as aggressive a spreader.  It can mature to 4-6' tall and thrives in part-sun moist areas.  The small white spring flowers produce white berries which attract birds.  Second and third are varieties of oriental or Chinese dogwood.  Cornus 'Summer Fun' has white flower bracts in late spring which complement the rich, boldly contrasting green and cream-white leaves. Leaf margins are brighter white than those of other variegated dogwoods. 'Tri Splendor' has leaves which are green and white dappled with some gold at the base on new growth. Creamy white bracts appear in the spring.  Each can grow to 18-20' tall and thrive in part-sun areas.

If you want to add some interest to your perennial or shrub border try adding some of these variegated beauties.  The combination of Abelia Radiance's white and silvery-green variegated foliage along with red stems, give the plant outstanding color and impact year round.  'Radiance' is a full to part-sun plant which produces fragrant white trumpet shaped flowers in summer, is deer, drought and disease resistant and only grows 2-3' tall.  'My Monet' Weigela is another short, 12-18", deer resistant plant.  It produces pink trumpet shaped flowers in spring and has lovely  green and white leaves.  'Lemon Beauty' box honeysuckle also is a compact growing shrub which holds its green and gold leaves through winter, similar to a boxwood.

Speaking of boxwoods, how about a variegated variety called 'Elegantissima?'  ‘Elegantissima’ is a dense, mounded, compact form of boxwood that features bright variegated foliage. Elliptic to oval, evergreen leaves are medium green with broad but irregular white margins. Plants will typically mature to 5’ tall by 4’ wide over the first 15 years unless pruned shorter.  Nothing quite says evergreen like a pine tree.  I was stopped in my tracks when I saw the Dragon's-eye Japanese red pine.  I simply have to have one!  The needles of this slow growing pine have two yellow bands which, when looked at straight on, give the illusion of a dragon's eye.  This adaptable tree grows in full to part sun and reaches about 25 feet tall in 15 years.  It's awesome!

I decided it was time to venture into Family Tree's greenhouse to see what variegated treasures I could find there.  The greenhouse at Family Tree is where you can find tropical plants, annuals, houseplants and edibles.  It seems that when it comes to variegation Mother Nature was on overdrive in the tropical area.  The first to catch my eye was the blood banana Musa acuminata 'Zebrina.'  A dwarf banana, 'Zebrina' can easily reach 5-6' tall in one summer.  The large red and green leaves give a tropical flair to any patio or deck.  This banana can but rarely produces fruit.  The greenhouse was loaded with beautiful variegated Bougainvillea hanging baskets blooming in shades of pink, red, purple and orange.  I have a love-hate relationship with Bougainvillea.  This plant tends to bloom in cycles so it does not always have flowers.  Otherwise it is easy to grow as it likes lots of sun, heat and is drought tolerant.  The variegated varieties are especially pretty and during the non-blooming periods there is still the attractive green and creamy-white leaves.  Beware!  They have thorns!  Lately I have been obsessed with elephant ears.  Colocasia esculenta 'Mojito' is one particularily striking variety.  It has green and black mottled leaves and loves moisture.  In fact it is often used as a water garden plant.  It will reach 3' tall, shorter in drier sites.

More plants that seemed oblivious to the heat are the fancy leaved caladiums, long a staple of the annual shade garden, they absolutely love it hot and dry!  As a matter of fact the only thing that seems to kill them are cool temperatures and too much water.  The plants have traditionally come in shades of pink, red and white.  A newer introduction is one called 'Frog in a Blender.'  This caladium has variegated green and yellow leaves and looks like, well, the name says it all!  Another heat lover are ornamental pepper plants.  'Calico' is a wonderful variegated form with purple, green and white leaves and dark purple/black peppers.  The peppers are very hot and although edible are really grown for their ornamental value.

Two unusual tropical plants which you don't see very often are the variegated Tapioca, Manihot esculenta and the variegated Dwarf Screwpine, Pandanus veitchii.  These plants look really neat when used in summer landscape beds with other summer annuals.  Variegated Tapioca grows quickly to 3-6 feet and enjoys full to part sun.  Combine it with black elephant ears and sunpatiens for a tropical looking garden.  Although the roots are poisonous when raw, when properly cooked it can be eaten.  It sometimes goes by the name cassava.  Pandanus is another plant that can add a tropical look to your garden.  A striking variegated screw pine, veitchii has long, strap-like leaves arranged in a rosette. They are yellow with a deep green margin. A very low maintenance plant, Pandanus will maintain it's leaf color whether in sun or shade.

My journey into the world of variegated plants didn't end outside...I also found a wide assortment of houseplants with beautiful foliage as well!  No list of variegated plants would be complete without mentioning the Croton family.  These brightly colored plants come in an array of leaf shapes but all usually can be found in colors of orange, yellow, red and green.  Very common as a bright light houseplant they have also become very popular in outside combination pots for summer and fall.  The Dracaena family also is represented with the striking blue-green and chartreuse 'Lemon Lime.'  This plant is very useful for low light interior locations or as a vertical accent in shade combination pots outside.  Don't think that Philodendrons are boring.  Newer varieties like 'N Joy' with its bright white and green leaves or the satin pothos 'Silver Splash' can be used outside as well as a trailer in shady pots or hanging baskets!

My mind was swimming at all of the variegated options that Family Tree offered.  I didn't even mention the striped leaves of Sanseveria or the pink, green and white leaves of the variegated rubber tree Ficus 'Ruby.'  The annual fountain grass Pennisetum xadvena 'Cherry Sparkler' was tempting me or maybe the variegated Japanese forest grass Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola.'  Oh, and the herbs!  I could plant some Tricolor Sage, variegated peppermint or the green and white 'Pesto Perpetuo' basil!  The list goes on and on.  Who really needs flowers anyway?

(Family Tree Nursery has 3 locations in the Kansas City area.  You can visit their website at )

Categories: Garden Blog