Words & photos Sue Witteman
Many are the things I enjoy about having indoor plants in my life. Playing around with leaves that are coloured or patterned is one of those things.
Now it’s true that while variegation can polarise people, and can arouse strong feelings in an otherwise mild breast, it does merit consideration. I must admit that over the years I have oscillated between being excited by it and being dismissive of it. I have now made peace with it and enjoy using it both outside and inside. The trick, I think, seems to be to use it thoughtfully, whether you choose to use it in a look-at-me way or in a more subtle, supporting role. If you are still undecided, then approach it as an enhancer to your planting scheme rather than the main event. Start with some gentle, subtle variegation in among your green plants and go from there. If you like a bit of colour, however, then embrace it and use it with panache.
There is a wide spectrum of colours available including white, cream, silver, yellow (from butter-soft to look-at-the-sun yellow), brown, orange, red, purple, pink and glaucous blue. And, of course, there are all the green colours from the dark forest greens to the acid lime greens. Add to this all the myriad of leaf patterns; spots, dots, stripes, flecks, splashes, and you can see there is almost an infinite variety of interesting leaf decoration you can use in your décor. Variegation keeps a group of green plants interesting as it adds visual contrast that captures your attention.
Coloured foliage becomes even more user-friendly in winter when it’s all a bit gloomier outside and we are spending more time inside. Those white, cream, yellow, lime and silver variegated leaves can light up living spaces and give us something visually nice to see when we are at home, and can add lightness to a shady spot. However, just bear in mind that some of the variegated cultivars, such as the cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior ‘Variegata’), need to be grown in more light than their green versions, or they will start to revert back to green. Note also that variegated plants grow more slowly than their green counterparts and are usually smaller.
In the colder months, these plants can also take the place of cut flowers inside – particularly useful if your flower garden outside is low on pickability. They can also have a longer life than many indoor flowering plants. If you want a bit of flower power among your foliage plants, then you can do a sneaky and put a vase or jar among them and insert a few cut flowers. You can also add in some annual/seasonal plants, such as the winter-flowering Primula obconica or P. malacoides; or perhaps a flowering chrysanthemum in shades of white, yellow, pink, red or acid green.
So, we can go subdued or dramatic with our use of variegated plants. Some plants, such as the croton (Codiaeum variegatum) can have brilliant coloured leaves – green, red, yellow, orange and purple – sometimes all on the same plant! If you want a bit of theatre, then try using the rex begonias with their many patterned leaves in colours of plum, silver, red and grey. Some of the yellow variegated plants can add a sunshiny glow, whereas leaves with white or cream in them can add a freshness to a corner.
If you want to go for a subtler theme, then use leaves with just a little variegation – a few freckles of colour perhaps, or a pale stripe, and use plain green as a buffer between the variegation. I have a weeping fig with a light variegation on its limey leaves and it looks good paired with light green plants. I have also just bought a variegated rubber plant with leaf colours of grey, cream and pink (sounds a bit odd but looks better than it sounds) and I plan to pick out one or two of the leaf colours and make a tasteful vignette.
As always, if you are stuck for a plant, especially for a tricky area such as a hall, don’t discount ivy. There are many interestingly coloured and patterned forms from which to choose and they will handle a variety of conditions. A modern pot with three variegated ivies in it can look handsome, especially if displayed well.
As many plants come in both plain and coloured, you could try using a combination of the variegated and the green version of the same plant together in a display for a bit of visual fun.