This ajuga plant shows a variety of variegations in each leaf.

I have always been fascinated by foliage and love all the shades and colors that give landscape and household plants their dimension.

As we all know, most leaves are green due to the chlorophyll present for photosynthesis. But what about plant leaves that aren’t all green but have some patterns of lighter color in them? This phenomenon is called “variegation,” and people have been captivated with variegated leaves for centuries.

Variegation is caused by a couple of things. One is viral infection, which is fairly rare, and the other is a genetic mutation. Just as people have mutations in skin pigments, plants have mutated cells that carry no chlorophyll.

The variegated areas are not able to make food, which can possibly weaken a plant if not enough nutrients are produced. Some plants with variegation simply do not need as much chlorophyll, such as shade-loving varieties.

Another interesting dynamic of variegation is its ability to be reproduced. Some patterns of variegation are stable and can be passed on to the next generation of plants, either in the exact same pattern or a slight variation. Some are just speckled and totally random.

There are plant species with unstable variegated leaves that will produce offspring with all green leaves or just a branch or two with variegation.

In rare cases, a plant may produce an albino offspring, which cannot survive due to lack of food. Even though most cases of variegation are mutations, there is incredible beauty and visual interest in the colors and patterns of variegated leaves. These plants can add a pop of color and pattern to a leafy landscape with few or no flowers present.

Remember when considering adding variegated plants to your landscape, you must know the limitations of each species and plant them in the appropriate sunlight conditions to have the most success.

Darla Horner Menking is a Texas Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at

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