Variegation in Plants

When someone mentions ‘variegation’, which plant springs to mind? Most people will say ‘Variegated Monstera’, and rightly so – this plant has become one of the most sought after plants in the plant community, with some plants selling for thousands of dollars.

What is Variegation?

The term ‘variegated’ stems from the Latin word ‘variegatus’, which describes something composed of various colours.The colour(s) present on the leaves will depend on the amount of chlorophyll in the plants structure.
Variegation may be existent in the form or spots, stripes, patterns, and/or various colours. It can also extend from the stems/leaves up to the plants flowers.

How does it occur?

Plants develop variegation in several ways, either through a viral infection, genetic mutation, nutrient deficiency or chemical induction. Chemically induced variegation is done in lab environments, and is usually not stable, meaning the plant will inevitably revert.


This type of variegation is part of the plants DNA and is naturally present. Plants such as Calathea are perfect examples of this, as these plants will reproduce similar, re-occuring patterns and colouration in new leaves and offshoots.


This variegation is caused by genetic mutation, and is the most common type of variegation found in houseplant collections. Chlorophyll production is disrupted by two different chromosomal make-ups, generally causing white, cream and/or yellow markings on plants, producing non-conformal patterns and splotches on leaves. An example of a plant with chimeral variegation is ‘Monstera deliciosa ‘variegata’.


One example of a viral infection in plants is the Mosaic Virus – this virus is common in crops and many herbaceous plants. The Mosaic virus affects the genetic signalling within the plant, causing a mosaic-like pattern on the leaves. While it may be pretty, its dangerous to plant health and will eventually kill the plant, or spread, if left untreated.


This variegation is usually silvery or shiny, caused by air pockets (or blisters) between the outer leaf membrane and the pigmented layer, causing a silvery sheen when light is reflected off the surface of the leaf. Examples of this variegation are found on (and not limited to) Peperomia argyreia or Angel Wing Begonia.

How can you encourage or sustain variegation?

The amount of variegation in plants will ultimately depend on the plants genetic make-up and stability of the ‘mutated’ chlorophyll. It is not uncommon for plants to want to revert back to their non-variegated form, which allows them to photosynthesise better and thrive.

Unfortunately once a plant starts to revert, there is no way of stopping this process. However, you can slow it down. Reversion can be due to overwatering, low light conditions, temperature changes, low nutrient levels etc.

Variegated plants need more light, because they have less chlorophyll in their leaves, meaning they produce less energy for growth. Providing the plant with enough light, will ensure it gets the food it needs, while still producing variegated leaves. Placing a plant in an Eastern facing window or giving the plant direct morning light, will help sustain and encourage variegation.

If your plant starts producing reverted leaves, it’s ok to prune back your plant. While this may not always work, it can encourage the plant to push out new, variegated growth.

It’s important to keep your plant at a stable temperature. The stress of too hot or too cold temperatures, may shock the plant into thinking its environment is ‘compromising’, encouraging it to revert – to keep itself safe and competitive. This is the same with light.

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