Variegated Plants: What's the Big Deal and Why Are They So Expensive

Unfknblvbl_nature
Published on August 12th 2019
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A close up of some green variegated plants
It's truly wonderful how many people are getting interested in plants and wanting to learn more about caring for them. No matter what sparked your interest and first got you into plants, whether you've been growing for years or just got your first houseplant, I find there's always more to learn and get excited by!
I am continually amazed by their huge diversity, the resilience of plants and how much happiness caring for them and watching them grow and develop can bring. I also cannot stop buying and swapping them and have built up a collection that currently dominates all my windows, but that's a different discussion!
A close up of a green variegated ivy plant
A variegated ivy leaf.

Variegation:

You've probably seen online, there's a lot of hype at the moment about variegated everything. Variegation is a term applied to plants with patches of colour on their leaves and stems other than the typical green. If you're trying to ID your Monstera or want to learn more about different Monstera species, this article might be more helpful:

Why plants are green:

The green colouration of plants comes from the contents of their cells, they have structures called chloroplasts which enable them to conduct the chemical reactions involved in photosynthesis.
Simplified diagram depicting photosynthesis. Water is taken in by the plant roots, carbon dioxide enters through small pores in the leaves called stomata and glucose sugar is produced along with water during photosynthesis using light energy from the sun.
In photosynthesis, plants use carbon dioxide, water and light energy from the sun, to produce sugars such as glucose and oxygen as a byproduct. This is done through a whole series of smaller reactions, if you're interested in the science you can read more about this here: Photosynthesis overview
Chloroplasts contain light-absorbing molecules called pigments, specifically chlorophyll. This pigment is termed photosensitive as it responds to light, selectively absorbing blue and red light and reflecting green light, hence why they and plants appear green.
So the green bits of plants are the parts photosynthesising, combine this with variegation where plants have non-green foliage and you start to realise how contradictory these two things are.

Variegation and photosynthesis:

A close up of some variegated yellow and green leaves of a Philodendron Brasil plant
The variegated leaves of a Philodendron hederaceum 'Brazil' plant.
Essentially variegated plants have less surface area to photosynthesise with and produce the sugars they need for growth and repair, hence they usually need more light compared to entirely green plants and typically grow much, much slower. This is the basis of why they are currently so sought after and pricy! The stronger the variegation in a plant, the slower it grows, hence the longer it takes to propagate.
Strong variegation rarely occurs in nature and when it does, those plants are at a significant evolutionary disadvantage compared to entirely green plants as they do not photosynthesis as efficiently. The variegated plants you see going for crazy money online are all cultivated, meaning they have been bred by humans through vegetative propagation to maintain the variegated colouring.

Reversion and too much variegation:

Frequently variegated plants revert, meaning they stop producing non-green colouration and any new foliage is pure green. The flipside of this the production of extreme variegation such as entirely white leaves. These will be unable to photosynthesise and if all new growth is white, the plant will die.
In both cases, trimming a plant back to the point of variegation in the stem is a method of revival. If a plant is producing too much variegation, you can trim it back to encourage it to grow more green leaves, the location of the cut is key for this.
Similarly, if a plant has reverted and is only producing green foliage, a method to encourage the variegation is to trim the plant back to the variegation present in the stem. Strongly variegated plants should have strongly variegated stems, plants with variegated leaves, but very green stems are more likely to revert and likely won't produce more variegation than is already present.

I'd love to hear what you think, or see your variegated plantas! Please feel free to tag me:

Some fantastic looking variegated plants to inspire you:

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