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What is a Variegated Leaf?

Sheri Cyprus
Sheri Cyprus

A variegated leaf is one that features at least one other color besides green. Yellow, cream and white are the most common colors found on variegated leaves, but many others are possible. The additional color may be focused around the leaf's edge or appear in veins, spots, stripes or patches on the leaf. In most cases, the areas of color are irregular or uneven in shape. Variegated leaves indicate an absence of chlorophyll.

Chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b are dominant pigments that take in light and reflect it back as green. Plants that feature varying shades of green leaves have different amounts of chlorophyll in each leaf area. Plants that have colors other than green on their leaves don't have any chlorophyll in those areas -- the usually dominant chlorophyll pigment is being dominated by another pigment. Studies show that a variegated leaf is more likely to be weaker in its tissue than a green one and is more susceptible to problems such as insect infestation. Yet, variegated plants can thrive when well taken care of and can add interesting design possibilities to otherwise green landscapes.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

For instance, the Strobe plant, or Strobilanthes dyeranus, with its bright purple and blue toned variegated leaf pattern, makes an eye-catching border in a garden. The exotic colors in the center of the long, wide green leaves almost look as if they were spray-painted on. The Tricolor Oyster plant, or Tradescantia spathacea, has a more delicate variegated leaf look. It features long, thin green leaves striped lengthwise in pale violet and white. Variegated Rubber plants, Ficus elastica, have wide, random pinkish bands of color on some of their otherwise all green leaves.

Medio variegation refers to a variegated leaf that has color in the middle, while the term, marginate variegation, applies to color bordering the edge. Anthophyll pigments form yellowish colors and Anthocyanin pigments create reddish toned variegations. The Musa Siam banana plant is an especially striking and dramatic example of a red variegated plant – it can grow up to 15 feet (4.572 meters) tall. Its leaves and stems feature a red color that becomes deeper the hotter the temperature gets. Musa Siam banana plants may also feature some yellow and white areas.

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