A RECENT VISITOR to my garden, gazing at Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’, brought me up short by observing, “It’s gorgeous, but I’d never put it in my garden—I have a small garden, and if I planted it there you wouldn’t notice anything else.” What? Too beautiful to plant? How could this be?
There’s no denying that the horticultural world has gone hog-wild with variegated plants. A quick tour of the Web site of Plant Haven, a well-known plant introduction firm, shows that of the 66 varieties showcased there, 15, or 23%, are variegated. Now, I haven’t kept data, but as a grower who germinates many thousands of seeds per year, I would estimate that in nature far fewer than one percent of seedlings come up variegated, and most that do die soon after. Most of those that don’t die outgrow their variegation and revert to green. Most that don’t revert scorch, are unstable, or are just plain ugly. Good variegates are rare as hen’s teeth in nature—but they’ve become common in our gardens. Largely through the magic of tissue culture, once-rare variegated plants have become relatively cheap and abundant, as did sugar when it became a mainstay of plantation agriculture. And just as sugar can dull the taste buds and displace more nutritious fare in the diet, so variegated plants sometimes provide aesthetic “cheap thrills” at the expense of more complex garden design.
Consider, for example, the aforementioned Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’. It has exquisite white-bordered pale green leaves, but it lacks the stature of the straight species (it’s a dwarf), the structure (it’s layered, sort of, but it doesn’t have those wonderful long arched branches), and the stunning flower power (some years it blooms well enough, but never as drifts of snow weighing down green boughs). In winter, when the muscled trunks and flaking bark of the species shine, ‘Wolf Eyes’ is a forgettable twiggy mess. But we forgive everything when those pretty leaves unfurl.
Now, there are some variegates so elegant, and endowed with such presence, that they could almost pass for the aesthetic equivalent of nutritious. Phytolacca americana ‘Silberstein’, for example, may not look much like the native wild pokeweed from which it mutated, but the fact is that most of us don’t think of pokeweed as an asset in our gardens anyway. In this variegated incarnation, with creamy leaves speckled and dusted with green, and contrasting reddish stems (not to mention poisonous inky berries), it is magnificent. However, there’s no denying that when it’s in the garden, because your eye flies to it like a starling to a mulberry, everything around it is overlooked. It may be as a Sacher torte to a brownie, but it’s still a lot of sugar.
My point is that variegation in plants seduces like sweets in the diet: it’s hard to say no to, and the more you get, the less attuned you are to the subtler virtues of nonvariegated plants, just as you bypass the delicious complexities of fruits and vegetables when there are doughnuts on the counter. The eye is too easily pleased by stripes and splotches, and no longer seeks out more demanding contrasts: the glaucous solidity of a big blue hosta behind an etched screen of ferns, the evanescent greens of the garden as the day moves into night.
For Ellen Hornig, variegated plants are as show-offy as they are irresistible
But as Walt Whitman once wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself, (I am large, I can contain multitudes.).” Like all but the most disciplined gardeners, I too have succumbed, somewhat, to the charms of variegated foliage. I can’t ensure white flowers in the shade all summer, so I rely on variegated hostas and drifts of Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’ to illuminate the lower layers of the garden, while Aralia elata ‘Variegata’ wards off the black stillness of the trunks of my old white pines. I have a variegated seedling of Daphne mezereum ‘Album’ that I nurse along faithfully in the hope that one day it will develop a branch that doesn’t scorch or revert to green. I suspect I’ll keep variegated plants in my garden for some time to come. And now I’m going to have a doughnut, and a cup of coffee, with extra sugar. H