The value of winter variegation

By Andrew Collyer - Practical Gardening

Published 15/12/2015 | 00:00

Andrew Collyer.
Andrew Collyer.
Pittosporum 'Irene Patterson'

Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis Rosea' a winter flowering cherry.

Variegation is the term used to describe a plant leaf that has more than one colour on its surface. It is most commonly seen in bright mixes of yellows and creams in our gardens but it can appear in reds, purples and pink. Variegation very rarely occurs naturally in the wild but arises quite frequently as a result of cell mutation in growing nurseries.

A growing green leafed plant may unexpectedly throw out a variegated shoot. When this mutation appears a nurseyman may decide to take this shoot as a cutting and grow it on to create a new plant variety. Over years this plant is propagated again until such numbers are available to make it salable.

In the winter months when all the deciduous plants are bare, evergreen variegated plants especially the bright creams and yellows, are particularly valuable in the garden to provide colour and interest. These plants are inevitably shrubs as even the most hard of grasses and herbaceous plants are not looking there best right now.

When selecting an evergreen variegated plant consider it a multipurpose plant as it will provide interest through all four seasons. In winter it has stand alone qualities but during the rest of the year make it work for its place in your garden. You can do this by either selecting flowering varieties and or use it as a contrast plant in combination with deciduous plants that are at their best during the rest of the year.

My favourite example of a flowering species is the small shrub Coronilla glauca 'Variegata'. It is a little tender so want a warm sheltered spot but is well worth the effort. It has prettily variegated cream and yellow leaves with the bonus of lovely yellow scented flowers over a long period from February right through to May. Another highly scented subtly variegated plant is Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' producing pink/purple flowers in late winter to early spring. It likes well drained fertiles soil.

Viburnum tinus ' Variegatum' is a variety of the well known shrub commonly know as Laurustinus. This has a double winter wammy of being variegated yellow and cream and flowering from November to February.It makes a large shrub.

Other flowerers of note are Abelia x grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope' bright yellow variegations with small white flowers in autumn that contrast with the leaves that take on an orange hue. Luma apiculata 'Glanleam Gold' is a myrtle related plant that will make a small tree eventually. It has small creamy variegated leaves that are often tinged pink in spring.In late summer it is smothered with white flowers, and in older plants there is the added bonus of a beautifully cinnamon coloured peeling bark.

Pittosporums come in many sizes from the large like P. 'Garnetti' with creamy white markings that become flecked with pink and red in winter, to the smaller P. 'Irene Patterson' with leaves almost completely cream at times. Pittosporums do flower but you may only realise this when their honey scent pervades the air.

Plants worthy of their spot without flowering are the Phormiums. The sword like grassy foliage of these plants is a dramatic contrast at any time of year. They come in many shades of variegation, purples, red , pink, yellow and cream. There are two species P. tenax and P. cookianum the former being much larger than the latter. It is one of the most common garden problems I come across when people have bought a beautiful small Phormium only to find out within a couple of years that it has turned into an eight foot monster. Always check mature height before buying.

For coastal planting try Elaeagnus x ebbingei 'Limelight' or 'Gilt Edge' both are large shrubs that provide great shelter. For low planting or for training up a shady wall the Euonymus fortuneii species are unbeatable. E. 'Emerald and Gold' , E. 'Emerald Gaiety' and E. 'Blondy' are all recommended.

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