Variegated succulents are just that little bit special and also extremely popular. But the term is used rather selectively. After reading into what variegation actually is, it can be a bit confusing to identify which plants are variegated and how the variegation in them occurred.
Some variegation is natural, some can be caused by different factors, but variegation can also be induced chemically, though this is not to be tried at home.
How variegation on a particular plant occurred will usually dictate the success of it being continued in leaf propagation. Below I will try and make sense of what variegation is, how it happens and whether a variegated succulent will also propagate from leaf or cuttings and continues to grow variegated.
Diving into the technicalities of variegation can become extremely confusing and hard to read so I will try and explain as plainly as possible and not go too deep into scientific terms. I have also tried many experiments with our nursery variegated plants and will share the findings below.
What is variegation in succulents?
The term variegated or variegatus in Latin means to diversify in external appearance with colours. Variegation can be genetic (inherited) or a mutation that usually happens in plants naturally. Environmental factors can influence how a plant grows and can induce variegation.
Variegated plants have differently coloured parts on leaves and/or stems. The lighter coloured parts lack chlorophyll and therefore have difficulties in processing sunlight.
It seems that all variegation has come to be by a plant mutating for whatever reason or cross pollinating.
What matters is if the mutation has stabilised enough that the plant keeps on propagating variegated. Genetic variegation is likely to have originally happened by some sort of mutation or cross pollination and has stabilized over years and years of growth.
Variegation can be white (where there is no chlorophyll present), yellow, pink or a different shade of any colour but also, if the translation is taken literally, it can also be plants with splashes of colour or any multicoloured plants.
These days the term 'variegata' is mostly put behind succulents and other plants that have developed light coloured stripes or splotches running through their leaves and/or stems. The fact is that there are many more variegated plants that lots of people would not call variegated at all.
Pretty much any plant that has developed some kind of colour difference can be called variegated.
Will variegated succulent leaf produce variegated succulents?
Whether variegated leaf produces variegated plants depends on the type of variegation. If the variegation is genetic and stable, it is likely (but not always a given) the leaf will grow into a variegated plant. If the variegation is an unstable mutation the leaves may or may not grow into variegated plants.
The likelihood of a variegated leaf developing a variegated plant largely depends on how stable the variegation is. If unstable, be it human or nature induced, the leaves are very unlikely to produce a variegated plant.
When trying to propagate variegated succulents from a leaf, I’d suggest trying with one or two leaves first to see if they produce a variegated offspring. Don’t strip the whole plant only to find out the leaves will all grow non-variegated.
How to establish whether a variegation is genetic or cultivated?
It is safe to assume the majority of variegated succulents and other plants these days are cultivated and not found in the wild. Therefore it is very likely the mutation is unstable. Generally, one can tell whether variegation is genetic and found in the wild by looking at the Latin name.
If variegata is in italics after the name, the plant is a wild specimen. If ‘variegata’ is in quotations than it is likely to be a cultivar where variegation could have happened by chance or was carefully brought on by horticultural scientists.
Having said that, finding this information can be incredibly complicated mostly due to amateur growers and even nurseries themselves giving plants names or stating the name incorrectly.
In the world of social media, hashtags and search engines that cannot correct mistakes and promote websites based on search terms, the wrong name can easily catch on and it is then hard to find out the true name.
What causes variegation in succulents?
Variegation is usually caused by cell mutation in plants and can be genetically inherited from already stable variegated parent or can happen by chance. The cell mutations can happen as response to something in a plants environment or it can just be an anomaly. Variegation can also be caused by a disease or virus.
There are also ways of inducing variegation with chemicals and tweaking of the environment but this can mean working with dangerous substances or killing a plant if you don’t know what you’re doing. Inducing variegation at home is unlikely to work.
Variegation can be induced in horticultural labs and the best subjects to do it on are tissue cultures. The problem with trying to force a plant to produce variegation is that it can often be unstable, and the plant tends to eventually revert to its original colour.
How do you encourage variegation in already variegated plants?
Encouraging variegation can be tricky and often not possible. Techniques such as cutting off poorly variegated stems will work well with some plants, but not with others. Trying to get a rosette succulent to maintain variegation can be even more difficult as the whole top of the rosette would have to be cut to try and get more variegated leaves.
While researching this subject I have come across many claims that promise to help with maintaining variegation but lots of them just conflict with personal experience. For instance, one website’s advice was to place variegated plants in full sun to encourage variegation. While this can be fine with some plants it will almost definitely destroy others.
White or light variegated leaves lack chlorophyll and therefore cannot process sunlight into energy as well as green leaves that have good amounts of this pigment. Because of the inability to deal with the sun, variegated plants will often burn even in mild sun. Yes, they need lots of light but left unprotected in full sun, many light variegated succulents and other plants will most likely suffer burns and/or die.
There are of course exceptions. For instance, variegated versions of very hardy plants such as the Aeonium Mardi Gras, Crassula Sarmentosa or Crassula Ovata 'Red Coral' will grow in full sun very well and may indeed have poorer variegation if in too much shade. The variegation in these plants is not fully white but yellow and, therefore, a little more chlorophyll is present. This very likely helps with the ability to withstand direct sun. Having said that I have seen even these plants revert to green while in full sun.
Another claim I’ve come across is that low nitrogen fertilizer can help with maintaining variegation. This is unlikely to be true either. As a nursery we use different ratio fertlizers for different types of plants we grow and our experiments show no difference in variegation when changing fertilizers with different amounts of nitrogen.
To be honest, when a plant decides to start reverting its variegation, there is not much you can do. Pruning non variegated leaves or branched can help greatly, but it is really about luck. Sometimes a plant will respond and keep growing variegated, other times it will ignore your efforts.
Why do variegated plants revert?
Variegation can be a handicap for plants
Variegation is unstable
Variegated plants, especially those with white, pink or light variegation where chlorophyll is lacking, are at a disadvantage because they can’t process sunlight as well as their unvariegated cousins. This may cause them to grow smaller, slower and it may also hamper their ability to reproduce.
The non variegated plants around them will grow more vigorously and can smother/ grow over a smaller variegated plants. So to survive and grow better they start reverting to green.
In cultivated variegated plants where the variegation was induced or where a natural variegation is an unstable mutation, the plant is quite likely to revert back to its original colour.
Extreme heat or cold may also be a reason for plants to start loosing variegation as they are weaker being variegated.
As explained above, I wouldn’t recommend putting white or light variegated plants in full hot sun as they can burn easily. These plants still need plenty of light so they can preform photosynthesis. If variegated plants are in too much shade, they can start reverting back to green/original colour as it will help them process the little light they have better.
How to care for variegated succulents?
Variegated succulents and other plants will always be less hardy and slower growing than their green coloured cousins and will need extra bit of care. It is best to avoid strong, hot, direct sun but at the same time still provide plenty of light. Morning sun followed by plenty of bright indirect light is ideal, or under 30% shade-cloth.
Water the same as non-variegated succulents and plant in good quality succulent potting mix.
The amount of light a particular variegated succulent needs will depend whether the original is a sun-lover (Crassula, Echeveria etc.) or a shade-lover (Haworthia, Gasteria etc.) and the amount white variegation it has. Variegated sun-lovers will need more sun than shade-lovers, but hot summer sun from lunchtime onwards should be avoided.
Variegated sun-lovers with a lot of white variegation will also struggle more in hot sun. I find the best spot is under 30% shadecloth as it will protect your plants from harmful UV.
Variegated shade-lovers can be particularly sensitive to the sun and so should only be placed in spots where they get a little early morning sun and then lots of afternoon bright light, but no sun.
In conclusion, it can be difficult to manipulate nature, especially if it is being forced into producing weaker plants, which many variegated succulents and other plants are. If nature decides the variegation is not all that bad, it will usually stabilize, but if it is a disadvantage to a plant, it is likely it will try its hardest to grow out of it. Although humans have gotten rather good at tweaking plants to make them better better, prettier or stronger, they can’t always force a change that will make a plant weak.