A recently received gift of a beautiful variegated-leaf Geranium phaeum with sumptuous deep purple markings, reminded me of how much I like foliage with spots and splashes of another colour. There are many examples of plants with these sorts of leaves. Sometimes the variegation is caused by an inherited or random genetic mutation, which causes a lack of chlorophyll-producing tissue in part of the leaf. Another cause can be a viral infection of the plant, as seen in various Abutilon cultivars with yellow-mottled leaves. In other cases, the foliage variegation is caused by the zonal masking of green pigments by other pigments in the leaf tissue. Air pockets beneath the surface of the leaf can give the effect of silvery speckles, as in the case of Pilea cadierei, as can hairs of different colours on the leaf, a phenomenon often found with Begonia specimens.
Whatever the cause, spots and splashes on leaves give the gardener plenty of scope for creating interesting combinations in the garden. Introducing such a plant in a sea of green leaves can give an accent in an area that might otherwise be quite dull. Silver, white or gold variegations bring splashes of light into shaded areas, often providing a much-needed accent. The colour of the markings can form an exciting basis for a colour echo - matching its colour to a nearby leaf or flower - which I find one of the most effective ways of forming plant partners in the garden or in containers with mixed plantings. It's important not to plant too many variegated plants together - this usually ends up making a busy and restless effect.
One of the classic plants of this type is the gold dust plant, Aucuba japonica 'Variegata', with its glossy green leaves flecked with warm yellow markings. A very tolerant plant, it will grow in shade and illuminate surrounding plants with its foliage, which looks as if it is dappled by sunlight. A nearby shrub of the equally tough Duranta 'Sheena's Gold' will effectively echo these tints and form a partnership which looks good every day of the year. Another gold-variegated specimen is the leopard plant, Farfugium japonicum 'Aureomaculatum' (ht 60cm), with extraordinary yellow-spotted leaves. This is a shade-loving, low-growing perennial that needs a little bit of moisture to do well in our Sydney gardens, but once established, is fairly robust. I admired it recently in a garden where it was happily paired with a yellow Clivia in a shaded bed.
Silver- or white-flecked leaves can also bring light to shaded spots: the aluminium plant Pilea cadierei and many Begonia species and cultivars are suitable candidates. A number of rhizomatous Begonia have silver markings on their textured leaves and various shrubby and cane types have foliage with dainty white dots. It's fun to highlight these with adjacent plants with white flowers, such as those of Justicia carnea, Plectranthus cultivars or Impatiens, or to sandwich them with the pure silvery leaves of Plectranthus argentatus, which flourishes in shaded locations. In cooler areas, perennial Pulmonaria offers clumps of gorgeous silver-spotted foliage.
In warm shady gardens, the plant family known as the Araceae, (often called the aroids) contains a number of stippled-leaf plants. Zantedeschia - the arum lily - has species and cultivars with pretty white-spotted foliage, as do various Dieffenbachia and Aglaonema; Caladium have wonderful arrow-shaped leaves including ones with white, pink or red speckles. A selection of these dramatic-leafed plants can be used to form a fabulous tropical effect in shade in warmer suburbs.
Other spotty specimens I like are the freckle-face plants (Hypoestes phyllostachya, ht 30-45cm). These belong to the Acanthaceae family, the members of which do very well in Sydney gardens on the whole. The freckle-face plants are perennial, growing to about 50 cm, and have leaves with polka dots or splashes of pink, white or even red. They can be matched to nearby flowers to produce a pretty effect. They grow well in sun or shade. Some people regard them as weeds, and I have to admit they do self-seed enthusiastically, but I find their speckled leaves charming and would not want to be without them.
Dark spotted or splashed plants include various bromeliads and some of the more unusual coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) cultivars. As for my new Geranium, it will find a home beside Colocasia 'Black Magic'and a black-leaved rhizomatous Begonia. The geranium's beautiful black-purple flowers will complete a satisfying picture!
Blog originally posted on 7 November 2010; updated 29 November 2020.
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