Variegation’s True Stripes

How do you feel about variegation?

Some people love it; others despise it – rarely do you find someone who can take it or leave it.

Our own James Brown doesn’t meet too many variegated plants he can’t live without- which may help explain our limited selection of variegated plants.

Some of the variegated plants that have made the cut include: Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’; Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance; and Carex morrowii ‘Silver Sceptre’.

What is variegation exactly?

Typically variegation is caused by a mutation. In some cases the mutation is genetic – meaning it can be inherited and it is reliably replicable. You can propagate a green shoot of this type of plant and the new offspring will still show variegation. This is a stable type of variegation.

This is the type of variegation found in the plants in Ecuadorian rainforests back in 2009 where researchers found a plant that evolved a form of variegation to mimic leaf miner damage. The thought is that the plant would avoid leaf miner infestation by replicating the look of existing leaf miner damage without actually being damaged! This was the first evidence of plants mimicking pest damage to avoid pest damage. But, rarely is it the case that variegation serves some sort of evolutionary advantage.

Variegation can also be random. This random genetic mutation is also known as a chimera In this case, if you try to replicate a green part of the plant, it will produce green offspring with no evidence of the variegation. The only way to reproduce the variegation is to propagate the variegated portions of the plant. This is an unstable type of variegation.

Sometimes, though quite infrequently, variegation is caused by a virus within the plant. We aren’t ready to add another virus to conversation just yet – but you can find out more about it here if you are curious.

Regardless of the way the mutation occurred, if the result is variegation, that often means that chlorophyll is suppressed in some way or absent completely and that portion of the plant can not photosynthesize. This doesn’t not generally make a weaker plant.

How does variegation affect the usefulness of the plant to insects?

According to research done by Doug Tallamy on native plant cultivars, breeding a native plant to have variegated leaves does not seem to deter insects from feeding on the leaves. His research showed that the only change in the leaves that consistently and significantly reduced the amount of insect feeding on native plants leaves was changing the color to purple or red.

The variegated offerings mentioned above are non-native Carex but there are plenty of variegated natives available. We highly recommend, if you are planting native as a way to support the ecology of a space, that you include straight species of green leaves, as well as variegated leaved plants if tat is your preference to ensure those insects have something to eat while they are visiting your garden.

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