Variegated Cacti (2017)

PhotoBy Eric Driskill (February 2017)

Variegation in plants is the local absence of green chlorophyll, giving striping, banding, blotching or spotting of white, some shade of yellow or other color. The color we see in plants owes its origin mainly to complex organic chemicals distributed in two different ways throughout some cells.

Purple, red and blue shades arise from cell-sap pigments flooding the cell contents. Green, yellow and orange shades are attributed to insoluble plastid pigments localized in plastids, more or less lens-shaped bodies scattered throughout certain cells.

Green plastids are called chloroplasts and contain chlorophyll, necessary along with light for plants to synthesize organic compounds. A seedling lacking all chlorophyll will normally perish as soon as the food reserves in the seed are exhausted — unless the plant is grafted onto a stock plant, which with its chlorophyll allows the plant to perform photosynthesis.

Plants can appear variegated for one of at least four reasons. Some plants display natural variegation in that their leaves have blotching, cross-banding or mottling. These plants display color variation, which is genetically controlled and normal. Plants can also suffer from a lack of light or essential nutrients such as magnesium, which can result in a plant looking variegated. However, after light levels or nutrients are adjusted and sufficient, the plant recovers to its normal color.

Some plants also appear to be variegated due to an infectious chlorosis. This is usually identified by the variegation passing from the scion to the stock plant as the graft passes the virus to its host.

Lastly, plants can be genetically controlled, which results in true variegation. Often the patterns of variegation are determined based on the veins of the plant leaves. In the leaves of monocots, with mostly long narrow blades with parallel veins, variegation is striped or streaked. In dicots, with netlike venation, the effect is typically blotching or marbling, but can also appear as marginal or apical.

Variegated plants require some additional considerations. Variegated plants are available on their own roots, as well as grafted. Both require special attention, but those on their own roots require some additional care.

Patience is always prudent when moving plants into more sunlight. You should allow an even slower acclimation of variegated plants into more sunlight. I agree with growers whose advice is to ultimately position variegated plants on their own roots in strong light, as there is less overall chlorophyll.

Many growers limit overall fertilization of all plants in an effort to produce plants that are more compact. Some growers limit fertilization of variegated plants drastically or almost entirely. Many examples of variegated plants, both cacti and succulents, are available.

Start with a less-expensive variegated plant, and when you have grown it successfully, you might want to consider some of the more desirable offerings, which can be quite expensive.