Variegated Plant Guide

What Does Plant Variegation Mean?

Variegated plants add a unique and unexpected touch to areas populated by standard green foliage. Variegation is the result of a mutated leaf cell and can be inherited or random in the plant DNA. The chances of growing a variegated plant from seed is around 1 of 100,000 plants. Gardening with variegated plants offers a host of interesting opportunities to accent and brighten regular foliage ranging from different textures, hues and tones.

Variegation is produced when the plant cells lack pigment. It is usually a random mutation - but it can also be propagated by using parent plant tissue (grown from a variegated 'Mother' plant that already contains the variegated DNA).

White colouring indicates the lack of chloroplasts, where chloroplasts are vital to help in photosynthesis through turning solar energy into plant food (carbohydrates). This means variegated plants tend to grow more slowly than their green counterparts, as they lack chloroplast. This effect may be exhibited as wide light patches, stripes, dots or sectoral variegation.

Few plants with variegated foliage occur in nature, and without a trained eye - many 'variegations' of which could potentially be from disease, and are not true variegation. The majority of variegated plants today are propagated in greenhouses as the later generation of a random sport with variegated leaves. Variegated plants for gardens come in a wide range of forms, both annual and perennial, flowering or simply foliage.


Types of Plant Cuttings

  • Top Cutting – A top cutting is the most basic, and requires just one snip. By separating the top of the stem from the bottom, cutting on the internode, you remove the plant’s terminal bud, the growth point at the top of the stem. You can see this growth point as a pointy bump forming on the petiole of the newest leaf. Top cuttings are the best type of cutting because they start growing again the fastest and the new leaves will not lose much maturity.
  • Mid Cutting – Once you remove the top cutting, you can separate additional cuttings from the middle of the stem. Each middle cut requires two snips, one above and one below. A mid cutting will start growing a new stem from its node’s axillary bud, so it will be starting over in terms of leaf size and maturity.
  • Stem cutting – Also called a "node", “wet stick”, or “chonk”. A stem cutting contains just nodes and no leaves. Propagating a plant without a leaf is possible, it just takes longer as the plant has no leaves to perform photosynthesis.

What size of cutting is best for propagating?

The ideal cutting would have 2-3 leaves, which also means 2-3 nodes. Here are the reasons why:

  1. A cutting with more leaves can produce more energy once it is rooted and regains access to water. This speeds up the process of growing the first new leaf, or activating the axillary bud, if applicable.
  2. You have more margin for error. If you experience rot and lose a node, you still have a chance for your cutting to grow.
  3. The cutting will look like a full plant sooner. One leaf cuttings can look really awkward in a pot until they grow new leaves.
  4. A larger cutting is more likely to contain an aerial root. For a top cutting, the newest node is typically immature and may not have an aerial root yet. Including a few lower nodes that already have aerial roots will help your cutting root faster.

If you want to split your cutting into single nodes to maximize the number of plants, for example with a variegated Monstera, I recommend waiting until all the nodes have their own roots. You can then split them later with less risk.

Why 3 leaves and not more?

The difference is that for an unrooted cutting, you need to balance energy production and consumption. Without water from the roots, a cutting with many leaves may use more energy to sustain them than it can produce. In that case, the leaves will turn yellow and die off one by one until a balance is reached. This is especially true for mature cuttings with very large leaves. I learned this lesson the hard way with a gigantic mature cutting.

Do you need an aerial root?

Aerial roots are not necessary for a cutting to produce roots but they are beneficial. They will make the unrooted phase much shorter, reducing risk to your plant.

If a cutting has aerial roots, even if they are an awkward shape, do not cut them off. Only cut off aerial roots that are broken, mushy, or black. If the aerial root is a thin pale string with the outer casing falling off, it has rotted and should be cut off as well.

If you have a cutting without aerial roots, the new root will emerge from the stem. While propagating, look for a white, crystal-like bump. This indicates that roots are on their way.

Propagating via plant leaves

Can you propagate a plant using only the leaf? The short answer is no. A viable cutting must have a healthy node and auxiliary bud to grow a new plant. Without a node and auxiliary bud, you can 'root' a leaf, but it will likely never produce a new plant. Leaves can last a long time if kept in water, so you can use them as a decoration if you wish.

How long does propagating take?

The time it takes to propagate a Monstera depends on the health of the cutting and propagation method. Typically, it takes a few months.

Here are some anecdotal examples of times to unfurling of the first new leaf:

  • Top cutting with aerial root: 1.5 months
  • Mid cutting with aerial root: 3 months
  • Node cutting (no leaf) with aerial root: 4 months


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