The Beauty of Variegation, with Terry Miller of TJ’s Nursery & Gifts in Chico

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This week’s program was first published in January of 2008. Something about the mid-winter grayness inspired me to run it again, to remind us of winter’s bright spots.

Variegation is an interesting thing in a plant. And gardeners’ responses to variegation are almost as interesting. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people like striped variegation; others love splotchy variegation; still others like multi-colored variegations. My Aunt Bettina, Head Gardener at Ash Lawn, James Monroe’s historic home in Charlottesville, Virginia, once said to me. “Enjoying variegation comes with age.” And she may have been right, for while I am still not a total fan of all variegation – some of it absolutely stops me in my gardening tracks. Photo Above: The visually refreshing variegated Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium caeruleum ‘Brise d’Anjou’).

Terry Miller, horticulturist and long-time nurseryman likes all kinds of variegation. Not long ago Terry and his wife, Jean, who is the Assistant Agriculture Commissioner for Glenn County, opened TJ’s Nursery and Gifts on the northwest side of Chico. Terry is a natural educator and regularly speaks at garden clubs and plant societies throughout the region on a whole spectrum of horticultural topics. Furthermore, he is a wealth of friendly information when you go into the nursery. He generously “chats plants” as long as he is able during his busy workday. While TJ’s is a full-service nursery, it is also jackpot of variegated plants. Photo Above: A variegated, golden coral bell (Heuchera) calls your attention to and provides a wonderful contrasting background for a spring iris bloom to really show off.

After receiving his Agriculture degree with an emphasis on Ornamental Horticulture from Chico State, Terry went on to work in the regional horticulture industry for the next 30 years. About opening TJ’s, “I really wanted to specialize in interesting plant choices – out of the ordinary trees, shrubs, perennials – and I wanted to help people pick the plants they would want to wake up to and take care of in their own gardens” he tells me. Which is where variegation comes in. “Variegated plants are some of the most interesting choices out there in my mind,” he says. “And once a gardener becomes familiar with variegated plants, they quickly become fans.” Photo Above: Entrance to TJ’s Nursery & Gifts in Chico.

Terry first became interested in variegated plants when he was working for Christian & Johnson’s in the 1970s, when the Chico institution was both a high-end specialty nursery and the floral shop it continues to be today. At that time, variegation was still fairly limited in the retail nursery industry and so any new example caught his eye – plants with white striping, with fully white or cream colored leaves, plants with red splotches or pink veins. He started to look for them and take note of really remarkable examples. Photo Above: One of Terry Miller’s favorite variegations is this willow – Salix integra ‘Hakuro niskiki’ – with its mottled leaves and red branches.

Variegation according to the American Horticultural Society’s Encyclopedia of Gardening is: “Term describing a plant marked with various colors in an irregular pattern; particularly used for leaves patterned with white and yellow markings, but not confined to these colors.” Photo Above: creamy pink edged New Zealand Flax (Phormium) is an example of multi-colored variegation. Terry cautions however, that “Flax are very prone to reversion, so enjoy the variegation while you can!”

Variegation occurs in a plant for a variety of reasons – a disturbance in a plant’s photosynthesis, a lack of chlorophyll in certain of the plant’s cells, a viral disturbance, or an unusual strength in pigments other than green in a plant’s make-up that allows these other pigments – often red or pink or brown – to mask the normal green on parts of the plant. In general, variegated plants are far more unusual in the wild than in cultivation because variegation is often a sign of a weakness and either the plant dies or the variegated aspect dies. However, because variegation is highly sought after in horticulture, plants have been propagated and bred specifically for variegation and over the past decade or so renewed interest in certain groups of plants, Coleus and Pelargoniums for instance, has resulted in many very healthy and beautiful variegated annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs in the retail trade today. Photo Above: One well-known variegated plant in the wild in the North State is the unmistakable milk thistle Silybum marianum.

In most cases, variegation wont come true from seed, or root cuttings, and so if you have a variegated plant which you would like more of, or a plant showing some variegation and you would like to propagate just that, your best chances are to propagate it from stem or shoot cuttings. Photo Above: A frosted, lemon-tipped Sedum lights up this winter container garden.

According to Terry, “Variegated plants lend such interest to a landscape – they add visual interest, depth and texture. Especially to areas that might otherwise look drab – areas of heavy shade or those plantings particularly noticed in low winter light. Variegated plants light up these areas!” he enthuses. Terry particularly likes the selections of variegated Phormium, such as ‘Maori Queen’; variegated Heuchera, variegated Euonymous, such as ‘Emerald Gaiety’; and the variegated willows, such as Salix integra ‘Hakuro nishiki’. Photo Above: A mottled-burnt-red-leaved coral bell (Heuchera).

Terry’s tips on growing and caring for variegated plants include the following: “Because the variegation on a plant is a weaker or recessive expression of the plant, you will sometimes get the original plant form growing up from the bottom or roots and it will generally be all green. This is called ‘reversion’ and if you really like the variegation, you will want to cut the non-variegated portions out. Also, many variegated plants are more prone to sunburn – like blond-haired people – especially here in the North State. A few types want to be in full sun, but more often than not white or cream colored variegated plants want partial shade.” Variegated plants TJs had in stock when I last visited included: ‘Silverstreak’ Agapanthus, Lemon-Bell Sedum, Leucodendron ‘Safari Sunshine’, Phormium lancer ‘Pink Stripe’, Heuchera ‘Midnight Rose’ and ‘Peach Melba’, ‘Silver Streak’ Dianella, Libertia peregrinans, Holly-leaved variegated Osmanthus, dwarf variegated Gardenia radicans, several variegated Nandinas – and more than I have room to mention…Photo Above: Variegated Euonymous.

Terry is the kind of man who will notice from his moving car driving, a variegated strain of creeping fig being sold in a roadside stall, and pull over to find out more about it. “Interesting variegations often begin as ‘sports’ off of a regular plant in someone’s garden. The gardener will notice this different leaf or branch and so they take a cutting and try to grow it along. And voila – a new selection!” How fun is that? Photo above: Terry Miller chats plants at TJ’s Nursery & Gifts.

You can see many more plants – variegated and otherwise – at TJ’s Nursery & Gifts at 2107 Kennedy Avenue in Chico; 530-893-1815. hosts an on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events; if you or your gardening organization have an event you’d like posted simply send an email with all relevant information to Jennifer

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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