Variegated Plants Vs. Non-Variegated Plants: What’s The Difference?

You’ve probably heard plant-parents gush about their variegated darlings or seen one advertised in a plant store. Still, you must be thinking what makes these plants different from regular houseplants, and why exactly are they this popular?

A variegated plant isn’t all that different from many of the houseplants you may already own. However, the difference is that it’s a unique variety of those same houseplants with different colored zones on their leaves and stems. These colors range from yellow to even pink and can appear as splotches, stripes, or dots.

What are variegated plants?

Variegation in plants is caused by a mutation in the cells of the plant that leads to a lack of chlorophyll, the pigment responsible for giving plants their green color. This causes different colors to show up in the plant’s foliage or stems.

pink variegated plant
white variegated pothos houseplant
Calathea White Fusion variegated houseplant

Variegated plants can also be classified as being stable or unstable due to the plant’s ability to revert to their normal, solid green state. Stable variegated plants will always remain variegated and won’t revert back to green, whereas unstable variegated plants can lose their variegation.

The most common reason a plant will lose its variegation is for the sake of survival: reverting back to solid green enables it to better capture sunlight for photosynthesis.

You can divide variegated plants into four broad categories based on how variegation is induced:

Viral variegation

Viruses can induce natural variegation. The most common example is the mosaic virus that creates mosaic-like patterns on a plant’s leaves.

Blister or reflective variegation

This type of variegation occurs when an air pocket forms on a leaf. The air pocket causes only parts of the leaf to contain chlorophyll leading to those characteristic bright reflective colors. The air pockets can occur in random blotches on the foliage, or along the leaf’s veins. You can see great examples of this blister variegation in Philodendrons.

Pattern-gene variegation

This is your most common type of variegation, as it occurs naturally. This means that the pattern of each leaf is already inscribed into the plant’s DNA, so every leaf looks similar. Common houseplants that you may know have this type of variegation are the many kinds of Calatheas or Snake Plant (Sansevieria).

Chimeral variegation

In Chimereral variegation, a genetic mutation occurs, leading a plant to create two sets of different chromosomal makeups. Only one of the chromosomal sets can produce chlorophyll, leading to white or yellow shapes that mix with the green on the plant’s foliage and stems.  Those highly sought-after Variegated Monsteras are a great example of Chimeral variegation.

How are variegated plants different from normal plants?

There are 3 main differences between variegated and non-variegated plants:

Color

Both the color and the pattern of the variegation on plants can vary a lot. The most common colors in variegated plants are cream, white, and silver, but you can also find different shades of pink, purple, red, and even orange.

The pattern of the variegation can be bicolored, tricolored and even quadricolored. Even the season can have an effect on the plant’s variegation. A Lysimachia punctata for example will have pink and green leaf patterns during spring, but this turns into white and green in the summer months.

If you are in the market to buy one, deciphering the names of the variegated plants may seem confusing at first.

The most common words that you will see are the following: cream or white (Albo), yellow (Aurea), and light green (Sport). So, if someone speaks about a Monstera Variegata ‘Sport Green’, you’ll know it’s a variegated Monstera with light green variegation and not yellow or white colors on the leaf.

Presence in nature

Chlorophyll isn’t only responsible for giving plants their green color. Its main task is to absorb light and convert this into energy for the plant. Plants that have less chlorophyll are therefore at a disadvantage, so their greener non-variegated counterparts will easily outcompete them in nature. The green leaves have more energy and can easily dominate any weaker plants.

This also means that variegated plants are slightly less robust, so if you have one or are planning to buy one, you should know they are a bit higher maintenance. This is especially when it comes to regulating the amount of sunlight you need to give them. If you buy a cutting, make sure not to buy one that’s completely white, as it most likely won’t survive given it doesn’t contain any chlorophyll to feed itself.

Price

Variegated plants, especially ones such as a rare Variegated monstera, may cost an arm and a leg, whereas a normal monstera is relatively cheap.  However, knowing the science behind these variegated plants helps you to understand their popularity and realize that their price isn’t due to only their aesthetics.

There are a couple of factors that make variegated plants more expensive than regular plants. Firstly, the demand for these plants has skyrocketed in recent years thanks to their appealing aesthetic and the allure of owning one of these sought-after beauties.

However, it’s at the supply end where things get tricky, as producing variegated plants is significantly more complex than normal variegated ones. You can’t just grow them directly from seed, so they need to be propagated using one of two methods. So that’s another reason why they are so expensive.

The first way in which variegated plants, such as the Monstera Thai Constellation for example, are produced is by relying on tissue-culture labs. The simple way of explaining this process is that plants are propagated by taking small parts of leaf tissue, treating it with hormones, and then growing it in order to duplicate the plant. Unfortunately, this whole process takes some time and can be very costly.

The second way is by using a cutting from a mutated mother plant. The chances of a houseplant becoming mutated is already extremely slim, with an estimated 1 in every 100 000 becoming mutated.

Another factor that adds to the difficulty of propagating these plants is that variegation doesn’t always show up in juvenile plants. Only as the plant matures will you start seeing the variegation.

Final Thoughts

Variegated plants differ from normal plants in both color and pattern due to a mutation. While they may look beautiful, they can be expensive to purchase and difficult to care for. So make sure you do your research into both the type of plant and variegation before you buy one!

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