Painted Leaves for Passionate Gardeners

A photo of variegated tapioca plant

By Chris Kelley
Photos courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder

(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener July 2006 issue.)
A photo of variegated tapioca plant

Variegated tapioca plant

One day, while casually walking through my greenhouse, my addiction to tropicals became clear. Who wouldn’t love and covet the amazing variegated and colorfully patterned leaves that occur so often in this heat-loving genera? I think I can trace it all back to girlhood, when, with my three sisters, I collected marbles. You guessed it.  My favorites were always those multi-colored, streaked, splashed and flat out wild-with-color ones. One passion lead to another, and here I am now, one of those geeky plant collectors, scouring the internet for anything-but-green-leaved plants.

For those of you botanically challenged, let’s define variegation as a plant with two or more colors in a leaf, principally white or yellow. Other plant pigments produce leaf colors—most notably in tropicals—in shades of blue, purple, yellow and orange. Yes, Mother Nature is one mischievous gal. Let the fun begin!

Let’s start with a few of my favorite variegated-leaf plants that have prospered in our steamy, lower Midwest summers.  One of the most talked about tropicals we grow is Manihot esculenta ‘Variegated,’ or tapioca plant. This vigorous, heat-loving member of the Euphorbia family offers up an extravagant, lush clump of deep green, fingered   leaves margined in bright yellow on intriguing pink leaf petioles and stems. A virtual tour-de-force growing to shrublike proportions in one summer season, the variegated tapioca is a top ten tropical for containers or any well drained garden site in half-day sun to full sun. A major tropical food crop, the tuberous roots are harvested into cassava flour, used in the production of –yuck!—tapioca. Roots are extremely poisonous ingested raw.

Variegated-leaf plants aren’t necessarily grown for their floral beauty, but Justicia brandegeana ‘Variegated’ produces endless salmon and white shrimplike blooms all growing season that are major hummingbird bait. The small, grayish leaves finely striped in cream are a bonus and make this all-too-perfect tropical a great container specimen parked at your patio door, where it will happily thrive in areas with only a few hours of sun, or full sun.

One of the most fascinating new variegates in our collection is Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Marble.’ I first saw this beautiful elephant ear in the Heckmann Bulb Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden. The stunning, large, charcoal-black leaves are randomly splashed and streaked in bright green, and tower over murky, deep purple stems. It makes an impressive centerpiece for sunny annual beds or containers, where it cries out for colorful under plantings of coleus, lantana, or wave petunias. Consider it a choice focal point in a pond planting too, being an aquatic. Still another choice variegated elephant ear

A photo of Alocasia 'Hilo Beauty'

Alocasia 'Hilo Beauty'

is Alocasia ‘Hilo Beauty,’ with parrot-green leaves polka-dotted in cream, a bold and riveting centerpiece for your patio pot collection.

Shade gardeners need not fret, for many variegated-leaved plants prefer less sunlight due to their decreased chlorophyll production. Right at the top

a photo of Persian shield annual plant

Persian shield

of the list is Strobilanthes dyerianus, commonly known as Persian shield. A botanical marvel with leaves a stunning blend of purple, silver and deep green– and a Plants of Merit selection from the Missouri Botanical Garden–the  Persian shield is easily grown and alive with color for shady containers or beds. Plop it in a pot with Thunbergia battiscombei, or blue glory vine, with large deep blue trumpets that are a perfect color echo to the seriously purple leaves. Another beautiful shade dweller is Abutilon megapotamicum ‘Variegated’ or flowering maple. Tiny leaves vividly splashed in yellow densely line the pendant, long stems, making it a perfect hanging basket candidate. Nectar-rich blooms, resembling small lanterns, have yellow petals and bright red calyces, and appear throughout summer, beckoning to hummingbirds.

For scorching, full sun areas consider the genus Acalypha, or chenille plants. Variegated selections are among the best new cultivars and offer seriously beautiful foliage on well- branched plants with an upright habit. A. wilkesiana ‘Kona Coast,’ featuring rounded leaves  almost entirely chartreuse with occasional deep green markings,  resides in an apple-green container here at our nursery, partnered with the brilliant orange blossoms of Justicia spicigera (Mexican honeysuckle), and Coleus ‘Kiwi Fern,’ a favorite color theme of mine in chartreuse and saucy orange.

Another highly variegated acalypha is A. wilkesiana ‘Bourbon Street’ from Athens Select, those Southern folks who demand  plants able to endure the worst of summer heat and humidity.  ‘Bourbon Street’ is a kaleidoscope in red, orange, gold and green foliage colors that intensify in those long, hot and hazy summer days. For a dwarf bedding annual, consider A. wilkesiana ‘Cypress Elf’. The petite plants are dense with tiny leaves in wild shades of coral, orange and green, discreetly edged in cream, and like all acalyphas, the colors only intensify as summer heats up.

Musa acuminata ‘Hi Color Dwarf’, a variegated leaf banana, bears green leaves boldly striped in red in a new compact form. Only growing to 36 –48 inches, ‘Hi Color Dwarf’ is a perfect container candidate where taller bananas would be too large or top heavy.

My patio containers have become the focus of my garden as I write this in late May, a virtual painted paradise of the beautiful, variegated leaves and flowers of my beloved tropicals, alive with visiting hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. Smug with the knowledge that they will thrive and only become more beautiful throughout the long hot season, Bill and I can lift a glass and happily toast to another sweltering, tropical St. Louis summer!

Chris Kelley is a self-taught gadener who, along with her husband Bill, owns Cottage Garden Nursery in Piasa, Illinois, where they grow and sell a wide variety of hardy and tender plants. She speaks and writes regularly on container gardening, tropical plants and other topics.