Are you a fan of patterned plants? I’m a total sucker for patterned plants, especially variegated ones. But some of them can be trickier to grow than you might think. There’s a reason that most plants have plain green leaves. Patterns, colors, and variegation often require a bit of extra trouble to keep the plant looking good. Some plants lose their patterns when they don’t get enough light, while others lose them when they get too much light. What the heck is going on?
After struggling with a couple of my own patterned plants, I’ve done a bit of research and have some tips and tricks to share to help you keep your plants looking their best.
My patterned plant research started after I put my name on a waiting list for a variegated Monstera deliciosa (otherwise known as Swiss-cheese plant), then paid a pretty penny for it. The giant, happy Monstera that I already had seemed to thrive on my casual watering in a very bright room. I didn’t think the care of the variegated version would be any different, but I quickly learned that it was a much fussier plant.
I got it in the summer, and for a while I couldn’t figure out how to keep the leaf tips from turning brown and crispy. See all of those ratty leaf tips? I lost a whole leaf that way.
It came with a solid-colored version in the same pot, but the variegated version got crispy leaves, while its pot-mate was much better off. I tried to google “variegated Monstera care,” and got nothing specific to the variegated version to tell me what I was doing wrong. Through trial and error, eventually I realized that the variegated Monstera needs less light and more water. You can see that these newer leaves are much happier, and don’t have any brown tips (so far).
I’m still trying to figure out its perfect spot for light exposure in my house, but it’s doing much better than it was at first. Why is it so much more sensitive than its solid-colored pot-mate, though?
Here’s a simple way to think about variegated and patterned plants: Most wild, uncultivated plants have solid green leaves. The green color is from chlorophyll, which allows them to turn sunlight into fuel. Variegated leaves have white or yellow patches that are missing their chlorophyll entirely, or have lower levels. That means that they don’t get as much energy as their solid-colored counterparts, and the lighter the leaves, the more susceptible they are to sun damage. Instead of being collected by the plant, the sun energy is just bouncing around, burning the leaf.
So a couple of things can happen with variegated plants. If they’re not getting enough light, some plants can turn their leaves completely green. They’re desperate for fuel, so they manage to get the chlorophyll in every part of the leaf. A common plant to see this with is variegated pothos. Leaves grown in the winter may be more green than leaves grown in the summer for this reason.
But variegated plants can also lose their variegation from too much light. Variegated African violets need less light, and will revert back to solid leaves if the light is too bright. It’s a protective mechanism, because otherwise the leaves would burn. Something similar is probably going on with prayer plants (Maranta leuconeura), which lose their patterns in light that is too bright.
I have a couple “Moondrop” variegated umbrella plants (dwarf Schefflera arboricola) that are in different locations in my house. It’s not super noticeable yet, but the one that has been in the brightest window has much more yellow spots. The yellow is a bit of chlorophyll in what would normally be white spots. (Side note: Isn’t this variegated “Janine” schefflera gorgeous? Adding to my wishlist!)
The one that has been in the bright window is on the right. It’s more obvious in person, but the variegated areas on top are more yellow than the ones on the plant on the left. Time to move it to a spot with less direct sun!
There’s an additional factor to consider with some patterned plants, which is color other than green. In several houseplants, you can think of the pink coloration that shows up as natural sunscreen that helps protect the white parts of the leaves from the sun.
A good example is a rubber plant (Ficus elastica). It has leaves with green in the middle, and white around the edges. That white part is pink if the leaves are getting enough sun, but turns white if the plant is in a location that is too dim. Basically, it doesn’t need the extra protection that the pink compound provides, so it ditches it. When I first got this plant I didn’t know that, so I had it in a dimmer room, and it lost all of its pink. Since I moved it into my brightest window, you can see that it’s been growing new leaves with lots of pink.
Ok, so what’s the takeaway? Here are some important things to remember for variegated and patterned plants.
Tips for Patterned Plants
- Treat variegated versions of plants as weaker versions of the non-variegated plant. Baby them, and be extra careful with light and water.
- Protect variegated plants from direct sun. This goes double during the summer! If you only have one window choice, but the sunlight is too bright, either move the plant back, or add a sheer curtain.
- Be prepared to move your patterned plants with the seasons. A window that may have perfectly adequate light during the summer might be too dim during the winter, and vice versa. In more Northern parts of the world, you may be able to get away with direct sun in the winter.
- If your plant loses its variegation or patterns, try googling to see whether it’s likely getting too much light, or not enough. If you can’t find any info about your plant, experiment with different lighting locations.
Are you ready to add some patterned plants to your collection? I hope I didn’t scare you off, because many of them are quite easy to grow. You just have to be a bit more diligent. They’re like the extra credit of plants: More work, but worth it for the beautiful foliage.