How to Induce Variegation in Plants

Given the unique pop of color that comes with variegated plants, it's only natural that you might want to influence the process. So how do you go about it?

Unfortunately, inducing variegation is a bit of a complicated and hazardous process – which may not be well worth your time (and health, most importantly). The best way to get variegated plants is to propagate new plants using already variegated ones.

We’ll get into the specifics of why trying to get variegation any other way is dangerous. For now, let’s here’s a brief rundown on the various reasons some plants end up with variegated leaves.

What Causes Variegation?

In nature, variegated plants are usually a result of mutation or a viral infection. Additionally, some plants are just naturally patterned/variegated – no mutations or infections.

Let’s get into some more detail about each one of these:

1. Mutation

When you think about inducing variegation what you’re basically trying to do – for the most part – is causing what’s known as mutation. It leads to a few select leaf parts being unable to produce chlorophyll, the compound responsible for the characteristic green appearance in most plants.

Naturally, lack of chlorophyll=variegation.

Genetic mutation is the most common way plants become variegated and the “faulty” genes can be inherited by the next generation of plants.

2. Viral Infection

Certain viral diseases could lead to leaf discoloration which is technically variegation. This happens when the said disease destroys large patches on leaves, leaving behind different colors like yellow and white.

Obviously, this isn’t the kind of variegation you should look forward to since it affects your plants in other ways that might not be exactly desirable. Plus, most of these viruses are transmitted by pests which also don’t have your plant’s best interest at heart.

3. Natural

As I’ve already mentioned, some plant species are naturally variegated, so they don’t have to undergo mutation or be plagued by a viral disease to change color. Such plants have a specific gene in their DNA that influences the various leaf patterns.

Ideally, these are the kind of plants you should be looking out for if you’re really into variegated beauties.

How to Induce Variegation in Plants

Inducing variegation in plants is done using transposable elements, radiation, and select chemicals.

1. Transposing Genes

Compared to the other two, this is probably the most complicated. Instead of just exposing the plant material to the various elements, certain pieces of desired DNA are singled out and rearranged to create a leaf variegation genome.

As you can tell already, this isn’t something you can casually pull off at home.

2. Chemical Mutagens

Lots of options out there but the most common chemical mutagen is called ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS). Its use is usually aimed at producing a bunch of other equally desirable mutations instead of just variegation.

In the process, metabolically active seeds or roots of seedlings are soaked in an EMS solution for anywhere from six to twelve hours. It sounds simple enough but getting any measurable results could take lots of trials which is certainly not attractive to most people.

And even then, you’re not guaranteed anything. Plus, ethyl methanesulfonate isn’t something you should be messing with in the first place due to being both carcinogenic and teratogenic.

3. Radiation

In this case, rooted cuttings are exposed to either gamma-rays or x-rays to alter the plant’s DNA structure and hopefully cause variegation. Just like EMS above, it’s not just the leaf color that’s affected.

Other possible effects of the rays include an increase in the size and number of leaves, flowers, and branches – all positive by any measure.

But just like pretty much every method of inducing variegation so far, you have no business handling the amount of radiation needed to disrupt DNA structure unless you’re an expert and are adhering to all the laid down safety procedures.

That’s why propagation from already variegated plants is the only sure and safest way to obtain new variegated plants.

Using Variegated Plant Tissues

Remember variegation is all about the genes, which means it’s a trait that can easily be passed on to the next generation of plants. So to increase the likelihood of producing variegated plants, try using only variegated parts in propagation.

The best plants to use are those that are either naturally variegated or those that became variegated due to mutation.

Maintaining Variegation

While beautiful to the eye, variegated leaves aren’t ideal for plants. The lack of chlorophyll on the discolored patches means the plant cannot produce enough energy for sustenance.

That’s why the variegated foliage will eventually disappear if left to compete against the more vibrant green leaves. Here’s how to make sure this doesn’t happen.

1. Nip Off Non-variegated Foliage

Non-variegated leaves are firing from all cylinders as far as energy production in the plant is concerned. As a result, their growth is rapid compared to the variegated ones that depend on just a few parts for photosynthesis.

Cutting them off will ensure they don’t eliminate their variegated counterparts.

2. Maintain a Constant Temperature Around the Plant

Frequent wide temperature variations will easily throw off a variegated plant, inevitably causing it to lose those discolored leaves. Try to keep the plant where the readings don’t go from one extreme end to the other.

Ideally, this will be indoors where you have some control over the temperatures.

3. Sunlight Is Your Biggest Friend

This isn’t just for maintaining the variegation but to also keep the plant healthy. Due to chlorophyll shortage, variegated plants need a lot of light to keep up with their energy requirements.

A well-lit spot with indirect sunlight will do just fine. Direct sun rays on discolored patches might not be the best of ideas.

4. Keep Your Variegated Plants Potted

The lack of chlorophyll makes variegated plants a bit sensitive to both temperature and light changes. That means you need to be moving the plants a lot if you really want to maintain that variegation.

Having them potted just makes this way easier as it gives you some control as far as temperature and light are concerned.

5. Use Low Nitrogen Fertilizer

Nitrogen is an essential mineral in the development of every plant. But too much of it in the case of variegated leaves is certainly not a good idea as it eventually leads to an overproduction of chlorophyll.

A low nitrogen fertilizer provides just the right amount of this nutrient without interfering with the plant’s variegation.

6. Water as Usual

Your variegated plants need water to thrive just like any of your other plants, so be sure to stick to an ideal watering schedule depending on the plant species.

While at it, remember not to overwater this usually encourages plants to spit out more chlorophyll than usual.

Final Thoughts

Variegation can be induced in three main ways – using radiation, chemical mutagens, and transposing genes. From the sound of these, you already know it’s quite impossible to apply them in your home.

They’re also extremely risky to attempt if you don’t know what you’re doing.

But if you really want variegated plants, the best way to go about it is to look for an already variegated one and propagate new plants with the discolored parts. While at it, remember to take steps to keep the variegation as it’s fairly easy for the plants to revert.