Light Up Your Garden with Variegated Foliage

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


coleus ‘big blonde’ zinnia

An easy way to brighten up your garden, even on cloudy days, is to include plants with variegated foliage. 

Marked with patches of color, other than green, whether mottled, striped or margined, variegated plants provide a contrast, serve as a focal point or complement flowering plants. And, there are a variety of types to choose from, including both evergreen and deciduous annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees and vines.

For hot sunny gardens, perennial Yuccafilamentosa ‘Color Guard’ offers evergreen foliage and bold texture. The sword like leaves, up to 30 inches long and 4 inches wide have a gold striped center with green margins.


variegated solomons seal


One of my top ten perennials for shade, variegated Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum,’ thrives in many different regions of the US.  This aristocrat grows two to three feet tall with graceful arching stems. Its soft green leaves are edged with a creamy white margin and look good for months. The small bell-type flowers appear in April to May but the foliage is colorful all summer. In fall it turns pale yellow before it disappears for winter. In my garden it makes a good companion with ferns and hellebores.


carex evergold dwarf mondo


Another shade lover, and a good ground-cover, (Zone 5 to 9)  is Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold.’  This sedge (it looks like an ornamental grass) forms a clump of thin grassy blades up to 12 inches long, that are creamy yellow to white with dark green edges. I grow it in combination with hydrangeas.


hakenchloa, autumn fern and boxwood


For gardens with cooler summers than my hot and humid Zone 7 garden, Japanese Forest grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola,’ is a winner. This gold striped grass forms clumps that are 15 inches tall.  It looks great paired with boxwood and hostas with blue-green foliage.    

For deep shade (even dry shade), Cast Iron plant, Aspidistra elatior, has been a standard evergreen perennial in southern gardens for generations.  Its large dark green blade-like leaves, add a strong vertical accent and, it is reported to be unappetizing to deer!  Today, gardeners have a variety of selections to choose from with frosted foliage that is speckled, striped or has distinctive margins. 

When it comes to broadleaf evergreens with variegated foliage, Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki,’ also known as holly osmanthus, has new growth that starts out pink to purple, then as leaves mature, they are cream flecked with green. I admit that I’m not sure about this plant but it is colorful. I would use it as an accent, one seems like more than enough. 

Just the mention of Elaeagnus will cause many gardeners to reach for the pruners but fortunately not all species are as aggressive as Elaeagnus pungens, known as autumn olive, it boasts fragrant flowers in fall. Better behaved is Elaeagnusxebbingei ‘Gilt Edge,’ with  dark green leaves edged in gold, it’s a standout in the garden. Its tiny fragrant flowers are a bonus. Combine it with evergreen hollies for year around color. 


cornus kousa ‘wolf eyes’


Dogwoods are a versatile group and Cornus kousa‘Wolf Eyes,’ a selection with variegated foliage, has leaves with pure white edges surrounding a green center.  For the best results, site this tree in part-shade against an evergreen back drop.