What is variegated foliage?
African Violets are normally grown for their flowers. However, some hybrids also have beautiful leaves! Variegation or variegated foliage in African violets refers to plant leaves that are partly green and mixed with other colours. Usually, the contrasting colour is white or cream, but rarer forms of variegation can include yellow, peach, or pink hues. These markings can appear as a halo around the outer edge of the leaf, or as random splashes and freckles across the full surface of the leaf.
History of Variegated Foliage
The first known variegation in an African Violet appeared in 1957 when the American hybridiser, Mrs Tommie Louise Oden, propagated “White Pride” (a popular double white variety at the time) that mutated and produced variegated white margins on its leaves. Experimenting, she was able to propagate the variegated variety through to nine successive generations and the new variety was named “Tommie Lou” in her honour.
For the next decade, Hybridisers tried unsuccessfully to recreate the variegated foliage. However, by the late 60s and early 70s, hydridisers Harold Reinhardt and Lyndon Lyon nurseries were successful in producing several new variegated plants, including Happy Harold, Top Dollar, Nancy Reagan and Lyndy Lou.
These days, variegated varieties have become commonplace. There are endless selections, including variegated trailers, miniatures, standards, chimeras, and fantasies to name a few. Some hybridisers even specialise in producing plants with variegated foliage.
Types of Variegated Foliage in African Violets
1. Edge variegation
Plants with edge variegation show a margin of variegation along the outer edges of the leaves, while the central part of the leaf remains green. This is often called Tommie-Lou variegation, after the hybridizer Tommie Louise Oden.
3. Mosaic variegation
Plants with mosaic variegation have a more uniform appearance. Their variegation shows up as streaks, splashes, freckles of colour across the entire surface of the leaf.
2. Crown Variegation
Plants with Champion or crown variegation show variegated colours on the inner leaves growing from the centre crown. This variegation is generally lost as the leaves mature and grow outward. American hybridiser Ethyl Champion (1916 – 2005) developed many varieties with this type of variegation, and her name is often associated with it.
4. Leaf Chimeras
Chimeras are a rare mutations where the cells from two different varieties exist in the same plant. In the case of African violets, chimeras generally produce “pinwheel” type striped flowers. However, chimerism can also show up in the foliage creating a dramatic form of variegation. Like the flowering chimeras, leaf chimeras will not propagate true by leaf cuttings, and can only be reproduced by division.
What Causes Variegated Foliage?
Variegated leaves are produced by cytoplasmic mutations in the plant. These mutations cause a lack of the green pigment (chlorophyll) in some of the plant cells. Some forms of variegation are inherent (in the genetic material of the plant) and others occur spontaneously (chimeric).
Care of a Variegated African Violet
The variegated parts of a leaf cannot convert light into energy (photosynthesis). Therefore, a variegated plant relies on the green parts of its leaves to survive. Because of this, variegated foliage plants grow slower than solid green plants. They might also be more susceptible to shock, diseases, and stress.
Occasionally variegated plants will sprout a random leaf that is entirely green. This habit is called “reversion”.
Edge variegation is more stable than crown variegation. Varieties with crown variegation are affected by temperature and can loose their distinctive markings in the summer heat. However, the new leaves will show variegation again when cooler weather returns.
Some growers place variegated plants closer to the floor (for example, on the lower shelves of their light stands) where the temperature tends to be cooler (since heat naturally rises). Plants with mosaic variegation are not affected by temperature and their variegation will remain constant.
In the past, growers believed that feeding variegated plants too much or feeding them nitrogen-rich fertilisers, would adversely affect the variegation. This myth has been debunked and the big African Violet growers recommend that we always use a “balanced” fertilizer, meaning a formula (N-P-K) containing approximately equal amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).
Propagating Variegated African Violets
Variegated African Violets can be propagated via the usual methods of leaf cuttings, side shoots (suckers) and dividing.
Variegation is in the genetic material of the plant as long as the type of variegation is not spontaneous or a chimera. This means you don’t need to use a variegated leaf to produce a variegated plant.
Actually, the reverse is true. When propagating variegated plants by leaf-cutting, it is best to choose a leaf containing as many green (chlorophyll-bearing) parts as possible. This means the mother leaf will have more energy to produce healthy babies.
It is common for new babies (plantlets) not to show variegation until they reach a more advanced stage.