Variegated Indoor Plants: The Science Behind the Latest Houseplant Trend
“Do you have Variegated Monstera deliciosa?” Of the countless plants requested in our shop, perhaps none is more highly sought after than this one. (The answer, by the way, is that yes, we very occasionally do have it, but not all that often… yet!). But it’s not just Variegated Monstera that’s capturing the attention of the houseplant community. As the focus of many plant lovers shifts from flowers to foliage, variegated indoor plants — plants whose leaves have differently colored zones — have come to the fore.
Whatever the reason, one thing can’t be denied: variegated indoor plants are trending. Hard.
There are many types of variegated indoor plants, and understanding the various types and causes of variegation is key both to the care of variegated specimens and to why many of them are so rare and hard to find.
Types of Variegated Indoor Plants
While the random patches, streaks and dots of white typical to Variegated Monstera is most likely what comes to mind when you think about variegated indoor plants, there are a number of different types of variegation that look quite distinct, with completely different causes.
Chimeral variegation is the most common type of variegation. Caused by a genetic mutation, In this type of variegation, plants show two different chromosomal make-ups in a single plant, where some tissue is able to produce chlorophyll and other is not. The result is a plant with white or yellow zones intermixed with the solid green form — this kind of plant is called a chimera. Variegated Monstera deliciosa is one such chimera.
Sometimes, chimeral variegation is randomly spread out around the plant. This is the case with Variegated Monstera, for instance, where you see white or yellow patches and dots splashed around the leaves almost like they’re splattered with paint, while some leaves emerge entirely white and others entirely green. Alternately, sometimes chimeral variegation can be consistent throughout the whole plant, with symmetrical leaf patterns.
One important thing to note is that depending on the plant and the cause of the variegation, the variegated form may be stable or unstable. Unstable variegated plants may revert to their solid green form. Variegated plants may also be less vigorous; for example, leaves that emerge solid white on a Variegated Monstera are unable to photosynthesize, and so they typically don’t last very long.
One of the reasons that some variegated cultivars or species are hard to come by is that only certain plants with chimeral variegation can be propagated successfully from stem cuttings, and no chimera will come “true to type” (exhibiting the same phenotype — in this case, variegation) from root cuttings, leaf cuttings or seeds. This means that opportunities for propagating this type of variegated plant are limited, and often unsuccessful.
Perhaps it’s the ephemeral nature of chimera that makes these plants so desirable?
Sometimes called Pigmented or Natural Variegation, some variegated plants aren’t mutants at all, but rather are naturally patterned. Some of our very favorite variegated indoor plants are patterned like this, and fortunately, unlike chimera, this type of variegation is written into the DNA of the species or cultivar, passed down from generation to generation.
For example, Calathea lancifolia (Rattlesnake Calathea) exhibits pigmented variegation, with a regular patterning of purple dots on its lanceolated green leaves. Likewise, Ctenanthe burle-marxii (Fishbone Prayer Plant) and other members of the Marantaceae family have Pattern-Gene variegation.
While some degree of natural variegation may be present in a species, growers often select for patterning and create hybrids to accentuate and manipulate this. The results are cultivars, a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding.
Blister or Reflective Variegation
Another kind variegation commonly seen in our favorite indoor plants is referred to as either blister variegation or reflective variegation. Tiny air pockets form between the pigmented lower and unpigmented upper layers of the leaves in this type of plant. When light hits thes transparent pockets, it is reflected, causing the leaves to have a silvery appearance.
Watermelon Peperomia (Peperomia argyreia, below) is one such plant that exhibits this reflective variegation. The silvery stripes that lend the plant its nickname are actually strips of reflective air pockets! This type of variegation doesn’t always appear so symmetrically, though; for example, the random spots on the leaves of Scindapsus pictus (aka Satin Pothos, above) are also caused by blister variegation.
One form of reflective variegation that we find especially attractive is when it occurs along the veins of leaves. This is often seen in aroid plants like Anthuriums, Alocasias and Philodendrons. For instance, Anthurium clarinervium, Alocasia frydek and Philodendron gloriosum all show reflective/blister variegation along the leaf veins. Beautiful, no?
Some variegated leaves are actually caused by viruses, such as the Mosaic virus. Though not super common, sometimes the resulting variegation from a virus is desirable and can be reproduced. Though not an indoor plant, one variegated plant where this type of viral variegation can be seen is certain Hosta cultivars.
Nomenclature, and One Last Note on the Variegated Monstera
Variegation is a term that is used rather loosely in the plant world. When it comes down to it, any plant displaying multiple colors can be called variegated. The word Variegated comes from the latin word variegatus, which means “made of various sorts or colors.”
Whether you use the term in its loose interpretation to describe patterned or multicolored leaves, or dive into the more technical causes of variegation described above (and it gets wayyyyy more technical and scientific if you want to go down that road – we’re no botanists, just fascinated!), we hope you’re better equipped to understand why plants look the way they do — and why some variegated indoor plants are so hard to find.
One final note to help you navigate the complicated world of plant variegation. When looking at a latin plant name, if you see the italicised word variegata as the second part of the latin name, this indicates a species found in the wild with variegation, such as Aloe variegata. Much more commonly, though, variegated plants are cultivars. This would be indicated with a capital ‘Variegata’ in single quotations.
There are two variegated Monstera forms we’re aware of, both cultivars. One is ‘Albo-Variegata,’ which has white paint-like splotches on the leaves, sometimes with half or wholly white leaves. The other is ‘Thai Constellation,’ (above) which typically displays a creamy-yellow variegation with much smaller splotches or dots on the leaves.
What’s your favorite variegated plant? Share with us in the comments!