Star Gardener: Beauty Plus Function

There is a deluge of variegated plants on the market, from agave to zelkova, with tulips, lily of the valley, hostas, and huge, mighty oaks in between
Cherry Laurel with clematis

Some people loathe it.  More love it.  Others are obsessed by it and collect as many variegated plants as possible, sticking them in the garden like so many soldiers.  

Traveling through my garden, it is easy to see that I, too, have had a long and enduring fascination with them. 

But beware: There is a deluge of variegated plants on the market, from agave to zelkova, with tulips, lily of the valley, hostas, and huge, mighty oaks in between. Buy them with abandon — only later carrying them around the garden looking for a spot to plant them — and you risk creating a hodgepodge.  (Coincidentally, and in all innocence, just after writing these words as I was pointing out a hellebore with the most vivid variegation of any, a guest commented, “You like variegated plants, don’t you?”)

Two guiding principles for me are: Is the plant beautiful, and, more important, does it bring a specific function to the garden or solve a problem?  Flowers are fleeting. Some last days; most others up to a month, if you are fortunate. Variegated foliage, on the other hand, can bring color to the garden for about six months, or even all year if it is evergreen. Trees and shrubs should be used judiciously, while herbaceous plants are easier to integrate, particularly in shade gardens.

Daphne Carole Mackie’s sheer beauty is such that it will always find a spot in my garden in spite of its shortfalls. It flowers (fragrant and pink) for a few weeks in the beginning of May and afterward depends on the narrow gold edge of its leaves to draw interest. As it matures, its chestnut-colored branches tend to sprawl and eventually crack under the weight of snow.  Don’t ask how many times I’ve replaced it, but it never ceases to satisfy.

The white-flowering form of the variegated money plant, or honesty (Lunaria annua Alba Variegata) also flowers in early May. It is full of generosity:  self-seeding and happy in sun or shade. We allow it to grow where its seed germinates and remove seedlings when there are too many in one spot, although they are easy to transplant. The masses of white flowers are a highlight of the early-May garden, while the beautiful foliage carries on throughout the season. When the season is over, some seedpods are left on the ground where we would like plants the following year, and the rest go into a paper bag in the garage to share.

Dogwoods, for some reason, have dozens of variegated forms. I like the Chinese kousas, with white variegation on the leaves, to brighten shady spots.  Wolf Eyes is low-growing and appears almost completely white as the season progresses. Its name perfectly conveys the distinctive shape of its leaves.  Gold Star was a gift from the late Jim Cross of Environmentals, who thought it one of the best. At this time of year the leaves seem completely green from a distance, but the yellow in the center becomes prominent and very showy later in the season. 

The two most famous, elegant, and dramatic variegated dogwoods are Cornus controversa Variegata, sometimes called the wedding cake tree, and C. alternifolia Variegata. Both grow in horizontal layers, and from the distance appear white. Controversa is large, bold, and robust, while alternifolia is more delicate and requires protection from the wind. Both grow at Wave Hill in the Bronx, while a pair of controversa is iconic at White Flower Farm in Connecticut.

Even shrub red twig dogwoods may have variegated foliage, which gives them year-round interest. The foliage has even more appeal in summer with a clematis growing through it. Ivory Halo is a compact, particularly good cultivar that works well in containers as well as in the ground in sun or partial shade.

One of the most admired shrubs in my garden is a variegated cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus Castlewellan. Cherry laurels are evergreen, tough, and do very well in shade. The all-green varieties are used here frequently as hedges, probably because they are generally not bothered by deer. The leaves of Castlewellan are densely speckled and marbled with white. I’ve had one on the northwest side of the house in deepest shade for 20 years and recently planted another in a lightly shaded area where an all-summer-blooming clematis, C. x durandii with deep purple-blue flowers, sprawls through it.

Another shrub for deep shade is the old-fashioned, out-of-fashion deutzia.  Perhaps deutzia are not often found in today’s gardens because they flower only fleetingly and cannot compete with longer-flowering trees and shrubs in late May and early June. White Splashed deutzia has nicely scented white flowers, but that is not why I grow it. Its leaves, which feel like sandpaper, are speckled and dusted with bright white, which gives the illusion of sunlight even on the dreariest day. It has proven to be a much better replacement for the variegated pieris that was originally in that spot.

More often than not, a garden will be more successful if variegated plants harmonize with their surroundings. But just as bright red can add a spot of excitement to a planting, so can the occasional, spectacular variegated plant.

Wolf Eyes Chinese dogwood
Deutzia scabra White Splash
Daphne Carole Mackie