Bright Variegation for Foliage Contrasts (continued)
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Many other perennials have variegated forms. At times it goes to extremes. There are hundreds of variegated hostas, white edged, yellow centred, white and yellow streaked. Every year a new batch is introduced. I have a soft spot for them all - but can only ever grow a few. Their broad leaves are manna for my slugs and snails, which limits me to container growing, and their shapes are variations on a rather restricted theme. As accent plants in moist, lightly shaded sites they can be superb but they do need the presence of other good foliage plants to provide contrasts.
Astrantias are classic cottage garden plants with heads of pincushion flowers carried over a long summer season. Their foliage is good, but the variegated form takes an attractive template and improves on it with crisp white edging. A similar broad edging can be seen on the heart shaped, dark green leaves of Brunnera macrophylla 'Hadspen Cream'. This flourishes in a shady site and has the added bonus of airy heads of tiny blue flowers in late spring. Grow these two instead of the original species and you won't be disappointed.
Any shade planting benefits from white or yellow variegation in the foliage display. Even if all you have is dry shade there are variegated Vincas that will make an effective cover. The most brightly marked is the blue flowered Vinca major 'Elegantissima', but the varieties of Vinca minor make better garden guests, producing white or yellow variegated leaves with blue or white spring flowers. Alternatively you could try the gold edged form of the Caucasian comfrey, Symphytum caucasicum 'Goldsmith'. This is spreading into an attractive patch alongside some steps in my own garden. Small white flowers, tipped with red, are a minor spring bonus but the foliage is the essence of this tough plant. It brings the feel of sunlight into a shady spot.
Shade might seem a natural home for variegation but sunny spots can also benefit. As unlikely a site as the herb garden is brightened by the golden variegation of the prettiest form of lemon balm. This is at its best in early summer, but can be refreshed with a good haircut later in the year. Golden marjoram has leaves almost entirely yellow. It's as good for cooking as the plainer green leafed type, more compact and comes true from seed. Alongside you could always grow a variegated form of thyme. 'Silver Posie' is the best, with bright white edging to the tiny leaves. It looks and smells delightful - both to humans and, apparently, to slugs. My plant was stripped overnight and never recovered.
The true effect of variegated foliage comes with larger plants. Variegated shrubs and climbers add height and interest to both sunny and shady gardens. Variegated hollies come in a variety of white and yellow splashed combinations, are hardy, and remain evergreen in all but severely cold winters. Variegated forms of Cornus alba such as 'Sibirica Variegata' carry coloured winter stems and brightly variegated summer foliage. One of my own favourites is Wiegela florida 'Variegata'. In spring the leaves unfold white edged, deepening to yellow as the days lengthen. Tubular pink flowers add to the effect. This is for sunny spots on any normal soil. For shadier sites on acid soils there are few better plants than Pieris formosa 'Flaming Silver'. This is a variegated shrub that has everything the gardener could want. Heather like bells of white flowers are carried in early spring, opening as the vivid red young shoots emerge. These gradually fade through pink to cream and then to white edged green. I sometimes get a secondary show in later summer but I don't rely on this. The only disadvantage is a slow rate of growth. It will be a few years before I can use my plant as host for the vivid red flowered perennial nasturtium, Tropaeolum speciosum. I saw this combination in a far more mature garden and the effect was magical.
Walls can be clothed with variegated climbers to add interest. English ivy, Hedera helix, has sported to produce innumerable variegated offspring. I currently grow yellow variegated 'Goldheart' on one of my walls, white edged 'Glacier' up an old conifer stump and have grown others in the past. Less vigorous than their plain leafed parents they are ideal for smaller gardens. If this doesn't appeal then varieties of Euonymus fortunei with white and gold variegation will also climb if given a suitable wall or tree trunk to grow against. I'm trying to persuade the slow growing 'Emerald Gaiety' to climb a low wall but progress is painfully slow so far. Other varieties, such as 'Emerald and Gold', are more vigorous.
Star of the variegated climbers for temperate climates must be Actinidia kolomikta. This large leafed relative of Kiwi fruit has a natural variegation that develops on the older leaves of male plants. Emerging bronzed in spring, they brighten from the tips in shades of pink, before clearing to white over half the leaf surface. Seen from a distance the effect is that of unusual white blossom sprinkled over the plant. It's only when you get nearer that you realise that the leaves are the source of the interest. This one needs sun to develop the best variegation.
Even trees can be variegated. Many species and varieties of Acer are ideal for smaller gardens, growing slowly and remaining manageable. Look through a good nursery list and you'll find variegated varieties of Acer negundo ('Flamingo' is the best), japanese maple, Acer palmatum, and Norway maple, Acer platanoides. Alternatively you could try something on a larger scale. The tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, has a bright yellow edged form called 'Aureomarginatum'. Even a small tree looks impressive, but, given time, it will come to dominate a landscape. If only I had a couple of acres.
Overused, variegation can be very messy. Grown for effect, using a scattering of bold, bright white or yellow painted foliage to contrast with a greater mass of plainer green leaves, it can be fabulous. Be selective in your plant choices, use variegation for contrast rather than as the dominant theme, and the rewards will follow. There is no lack of varieties to suit any site or situation.
About the Author John Richmond is a keen gardener who lives and works in the South West of England. He has a scientific background as a professional ecologist. He has written occasional articles for gardening and other magazines in Britain since 1984, specializing in garden wildlife issues and hardy plants. His own garden can be visited via the web, and correspondence