The Ultimate Care Guide for Variegated Indoor Plants (and how not kill them)
Is the care different for variegated plants?
The short answer is YES. Variegated indoor plants do have different care requirements from their all-green cousins. It's a rare house plant hobbyist who hasn't got at least one sad story about a variegated plant that slowly died, one brown leaf after another, or suddenly died from root rot.
Fertiliser, light, temperature, potting mix, watering and more need a different approach when it comes to your variegated jungle members. However not all types of variegation, or all variegated plants, need the VIP treatment.
Let's take a look at why most variegated plants do need special treatment, what the types of variegation are, what to do (and what to avoid), so you don't accidentally kill your variegated plants with kindness!
Do variegated plants need to be kept warmer or cooler?
In some plants variegation can be temperature-sensitive, becoming more or less variegated. Variegated African Violets and Tradescantia Blushing Maid are two that become more variegated in cooler temperatures, and less variegated at warmer times of year.
On the whole however, most variegated indoor plants don't become more or less variegated at different temperatures, and should be kept in the same temperature range as their all-green counterparts.
However if you have one that's on struggle-street, keeping to the warmer end of the scale will be appreciated as warmth aids recovery, helps increase growth, and water use, reducing the risk of root rot.
Do variegated plants have different light requirements?
Yes, most variegated plants do have higher light requirements, however they are also more prone to scorching due to being more photo-sensitive, so you need to find the right balance. You ideally want the brightest, indirect light possible.
Many will tolerate a little direct morning sun, or winter sun, however the general rule is to treat most variegated plants like Vampires, and keep them away from direct sunlight hitting their leaves.
There are some exceptions like Callisia repens 'Pink Bubbles' that often revert to green without direct sun, but as a general rule if you're unsure what your plant's specific needs are, it's safer not to mix direct sun and variegated leaves.
You'll often find conflicting advice about direct sun for some variegated plants. String of Turtles for example can flourish in direct sun, but if you give too much sunbathing time too fast, especially when they're babies or weren't grown with some direct sun, their leaves can scorch quickly due to a clear, jelly-like layer over their leaves.
[above] String of Turtles (Peperomia prostrata), have a clear jelly-like layer on their leaves that can easily scorch in direct sun when young or not acclimatised.
What does work wonders with variegated plants is grow lights. They give plants the spectrum range and extra light needed for growth, without the risk of UV burn from sunlight. Aim for at least 8 hours of very bright, indirect light a day.
Why do variegated plants need more light?
The most common type of variegation is due to a lack of the green pigment chlorophyll. When variegation is caused by a lack of chlorophyll, light requirements are different. Chlorophyll not only gives green plants their colour, it also absorbs light, so plants can photosynthesize. Think of the green patches like solar panels, powering our plants.
Less chlorophyll means smaller solar panels, and that's a key reason variegated plants tend to grow slower. That's also why highly-variegated leaves may not last as long, turning brown and dying early.
Brighter light is recommended so variegated leaves can more easily sustain themselves even with their smaller solar panels. A grow light is a big help.
Keep in mind what percent of variegation a leaf has, compared to how green it would otherwise be, plays a big part. Once you get over 50% variegation, especially if it's sectoral like a half-moon leaf, the higher the chance is that leaf may not last long. When buying variegated plants, stay away from fully variegated leaves. Instead keep to no more than 50/50 for the best chances of survival.
Two of my Philodendron Pink Princesses never lost any leaves until they started producing all-pink leaves. The fully variegated leaves typically last a few months before slowly going brown and eventually dying, compared to their half-moon leaves still going strong years later.
[above] A Philodendron Pink Princess showing strong variegation stripes on the stem, a half-moon leaf at the top, and full pink below.
Will variegated plants get more variegation with more light?
Yes and no. It's common for plants without stable variegation, to revert without enough light. Some only become variegated in very bright or direct light. However many variegated plants WON'T become more variegated in bright light, but instead might become more green in lower light - and no, that's not the same thing.
In lower light many variegated plants go in to 'survival mode' and will produce more green to increase the size of their 'solar panels' to sustain themselves. That's why more light doesn't always mean more variegation, but less light can mean more green.
Some plants only change colour in bright light or direct sun, called 'sun stress'. Crassula 'Calico Kitten' is one example, which transforms from green and cream, to hot pink and purple when grown in direct sun. Another one that gets a lovely pink blush with a little sun is Variegated String of Hearts.
One of my favourite colour-changers is my Hoya australis Lisa who now puts out the most dramatic pinky-red new growth since moving her to a spot that gets direct sun for a few hours every morning.
After receiving a Syngonium Confetti a couple of months back that arrived with barely any pink (sad face), I experimented with a few hours direct sun each morning. New growth is now coming through with lovely big pink patches and masses of pink freckles. Compare that to the all-pink Syngonium Neon, which tends to fade both when the light's too bright, and become more green when the light's too low.
[above] Showing the dramatic difference between Ficus Ruby leaves without direct sun, and new growth as a result of direct sun. Ruby kept in lower light often get mistaken for Tineke.
What it comes down to as far as light and variegated plants, is not to accept general sweeping statements about light requirements, and instead check what your exact plant's needs are. If in doubt, find a spot with the brightest, indirect light possible, and treat them like Vampires by keeping those variegated leaves out of direct sunlight.
What causes variegation?
There are multiple causes of variegation. Although sometimes called by different names, there are 4 main types of variegation. One caused by mutation, one by air, one is genetic, and the last is viral. In that same order, these are known as Chimeral Variegation, Blister Variegation, Pattern Gene Variegation and Viral Variegation.
What is Chimeral Variegation?
The most common reason a plant becomes variegated is due to a cell mutation that causes a random lack of the green pigment chlorophyll in the leaves. Yes, many of our rarest, most expensive house plants are mutants. That includes the many varieties of variegated Monstera.
[above] Variegated Monstera are a result of chimeral variegation caused by cell mutation.
This mutation means some tissue is able to produce green, and other tissue cannot. Unlike pattern variegation, chimeral variegation is usually random. Sometimes stable, sometimes unstable (unstable plants can revert back to all-green). The Monstera Thai Constellation has stable variegation for example, however the Monstera Albo does not.
What is Blister Variegation?
Blister variegation - also known as the less-gross-sounding 'reflective variegation' - is caused by air pockets under the top layer of the leaf, causing silvery variegation.
The dappled variegation in Scindapsus pictus, variegated stripes of a Watermelon Peperomia, and variegated veins of the Anthurium clarinervium, Alocasia frydek and Philodendron gloriosum, are all examples of blister variegation.
[above] Scindapsus pictus Trebie is an example of variegation caused by pockets of air, called reflective variegation.
What is Pattern-Gene Variegation?
Pattern-Gene variegation is also called natural variegation. It is stable and shows as predictable, repeatable, regular patterns on all leaves of the plant. Many Calathea and Maranta (also called 'Prayer Plants') are examples of pattern gene variegation.
[above] Goeppertia insignis, better known as the Calathea lancifolia or 'Rattlesnake Plant' is an example of pattern gene variegation.
What is Viral Variegation?
Viruses can also cause variegation in leaves and flowers. This types is also known as Pathological Variegation. As long as the virus is active in the plant, this type of variegation is stable. Probably the best known to indoor plant hobbyists is the Mosaic Virus, full name Dasheen mosaic virus (DsMV). Some growers purposely introduce a virus to induce variegation. Viruses that cause variegation will usually reduce growth rate and hardiness but won't always kill the plant.
Do variegated plants have more trouble acclimatising?
Yes, variegated plants definitely can have more trouble adjusting to changes in environment, often leading to browning on the variegated sections days or weeks after bring them home, or leaf drop. Highly variegated plants often arrive in perfect health and quickly decline due to the change in conditions to what they were used to.
Imagine those highly variegated leaves as 'weaker' (which they essentially are). Give the plant less than ideal conditions, or a sudden change in conditions, and where you might not have lost a hardier, green leaf as they adjust to new conditions, you may wave goodbye to those highly variegated ones.
This exact thing has happened to me more than once. The most extreme was the almost-loss of a highly-variegated 'Super White' Marble Queen. Leaf after leaf, the brown patches grew bigger and bigger, and eventually the entire leaf died, leaving me with just a stem and a couple of leaves that had a little more green than the others. She did bounce back and eventually grew more super white leaves.
Some types of plants are notorious leaf droppers when unhappy. Ficus are bad enough at handling change when all-green, like a Fiddle Leaf Fig, but add variegation to the mix and they are another one prone to both browning and leaf loss when conditions change (I'm looking at you Ficus Tineke).
So yes, do pay extra attention to how you treat a variegated plant on arrival. Bright, warm and humid - and out of the way of drafts - will help them settle in faster with less risk of leaf loss. Avoid adding to their stress by repotting.
PRO TIP: It may seem obvious the moment I share this tip, but ask the seller what conditions they kept your plant in. Try your best to emulate those exact conditions for the first few weeks to reduce the chance of losing any leaves.
What's the best soil mix for variegated plants?
The lack of green 'solar panels' slows down growth of many variegated plants, as they can't power the same faster, bigger growth of their all-green cousins. As a result of growing slower, they take longer to use up water in their soil, increasing the risk of root rot. The right substrate goes a long way in reducing that risk.
The best soil mix for variegated plants will usually be a chunky grade for extra air space, more free-draining to reduce the risk of root rot, and include ingredients with lower nutrient retention to reduce fertiliser burn from mineral build-up. Potting mix ingredients such as orchid bark, perlite, pumice and fern fibre are popular inclusions.
My variegated jungle members love the Bioleaf Aroid and Hoya Medium/Chunky custom potting mix and I'll sometimes add some extra orchid bark in there to get it extra chunky and quick-draining.
I would also stay away from potting mix with slow-release fertiliser in it for variegated plants, as due to their slower growth, variegated plants tends to be more salt-sensitive. More coming up about fertiliser next.
What's the best fertiliser for variegated plants?
You'd think if variegated plants needed their own fertiliser, that one of the many fertiliser manufacturers would have made one by now. Can you imagine how well that would sell?!
But no. There isn't a fertiliser made just for variegated plants (at least, not one I've found - so if you do find one please do let me know so I can bring it to New Zealand for us all). However there definitely are fertilisers that are safer for variegated plants (what to look for coming up below).
That's partly because their nutrient needs aren't much different from their all-green buddies. However that doesn't mean any old fertiliser will do. There are definitely some things to consider when choosing the best fertiliser for your variegated buddies. That includes how much you use.
Some plants are more prone to fertiliser burn than others. This is one thing variegated plants ARE more prone to because they grow slower, meaning in general they need less fertiliser. That doesn't mean no fertiliser!
Don't make the mistake of fertilising them at the same level and frequency as your all-green jungle members. That doesn't mean you should starve your variegated plants and not feed at all! You'll often see the 'weakly weekly' method recommended for variegated plants (meaning to fertilise lightly, every time you water). Here's how to use the Weakly Weekly method >
Keep in mind fertiliser burn can happen over time no matter what fertiliser you use, due to a build-up of mineral salts, however as variegated plants use minerals slower than their faster-growing green buddies, this can happen faster. Luckily there are a few ways to easily reduce the risk of fertiliser burn for your variegated besties.
Excess mineral salts can come from your water as well as your fertiliser. The first sign you might notice is fertiliser burn, usually showing up as brown leaf tips or leaf edges.
Other common signs of excess salts to watch for include reduced growth, dropping of lower leaves, stunted new growth, dead root tips and wilting not caused by over- or under-watering.
Even if your particular variegated plant is not more salt-sensitive than their all-green friends, you may see fertiliser burn on the variegated leaves first, before you see it on the green leaves.
4 ways to reduce fertiliser burn for variegated plants
(including what to watch out for in the fertiliser you choose)
1. Top water, heavily
In nature, water flows down and away from delicate roots, taking excess minerals with it. Top watering indoor plants helps flush out excess minerals that can otherwise build up in the pot, where the roots can't escape, causing fertiliser burn over time. You're essentially emulating nature by top watering heavily enough for it to drain out.
You may see mineral salt build-up as a white salty layer appearing on the soil surface, around the drainage holes, or a white haze on the outside of a terracotta pot. If you see it on the soil surface, get rid of it that before top-watering, don't water through it. Same for getting rid of it around drainage-holes if you bottom-water.
Top watering also pushes out old stale air and brings in fresh air for the roots. If you are a die-hard bottom watering fan, then swap one water a month for a heavy top water to reduce that risk of fertiliser burn. If you prefer to bottom-water your plants, consider top-watering just your variegated plants to reduce the risk.
Also avoid leaving water sitting in a saucer below the pot. The water that's drained out from the last time you watered can be high in excess minerals. You don't want those reabsorbed by the plant! It's better to let a plant fully drain before returning it to the cover pot or saucer, or set a timer and tip out the excess water soon after watering (I wait about 15 minutes max). Don't re-use that water for watering other plants either.
On the topic of saucers, if you do bottom water by topping up a saucer under your plant, remember to tip out leftover water and add fresh water every time, never just top up what's already there. That's because water evaporates but mineral salts don't. Over time if you never tip out, but only top-up, that water becomes extremely high in mineral salts.
2. Avoid urea
Urea is an excellent, affordable, readily-available source of nitrogen. Nitrogen is essential for plants. However urea is also comes with a higher risk of fertiliser burn. Luckily for outdoor plants, urea is highly soluble, easily leached away from roots through irrigation and rain. Indoors however, our plants can't escape.
Some fertiliser ingredients have a greater salt index than others. The higher the salt index the higher the risk of toxicity issues and fertiliser burn. Urea has a salt index of around 75%.
[above] New growth on Syngonium Confetti develops more pink with a little direct sun, however their paper-like leaves are more prone to scorching.
Most fertilisers - even ones for indoor plants - will use urea. You can use fertiliser with urea for variegated plants. You probably are right now. However getting the dose right, and adding a good top water flush, becomes more important if your fertiliser does include urea.
There are a small but growing number of fertilisers on the market free of urea,. Urea-free fertiliser is more suitable to salt-sensitive and slower-growing plants, making them a safer fertiliser option for variegated plants. Two popular fertiliser brands for variegated plants are Growth Technology (GT) and Dyna-Gro with all their formulas urea-free.
3. Avoid chlorides
Another ingredient with a high salt index is Potassium chloride, with a salt index of over 100%. Like Nitrogen, Potassium is essential for plants, but if you want to reduce the risk of fertiliser burn, Potassium chloride has the highest salt index among common fertiliser ingredients.
Again, like urea, finding a chloride-free fertiliser can be a big ask. It's a really good source of essential Potassium after all. Most fertilisers use it as their Potassium source, so if yours does (or if you don't know), get the dose right and top, flush water regularly, to reduce the risk of fertiliser burn.
Being such good sources of Nitrogen and Potassium, it's understandly difficult to source urea-free and chloride-free fertiliser. Another reason top-watering is recommended for variegated plants, or any more salt-sensitive plant (I'd argue that includes every indoor plant stuck in a pot). One of the few chloride-free fertilisers I know of is Growth Technology (GT).
4. Fertilise 'weakly, weekly'
This one's probably obvious now you know more about how variegated plants are different, but whatever fertiliser you use, use less. I use the 'weakly, weekly' method and feed around quarter to half-strength, every time I water. This helps avoid both excess salt build up, but also stays on top of potential mineral deficiencies.
Keep in mind whether you need to change the dose from what the label says does depends on the quality of fertiliser you're starting with. A handful of fertilisers are formulated for indoor plants, are urea-free (some are even chloride-free), and complete and balanced.
If you find yourself a really good indoor plant fertiliser, you can safely use it as the label directs, even on your variegated babies. If in doubt,change to the 'weakly, weekly' method. The way I work it out is if the label says to feed monthly, I quarter the amount. If it says to feed fortnightly I halve the amount. I then fertilise at that reduced rate, every time I water.
Do variegated plants need a lower nitrogen fertiliser?
Changing to a lower-nitrogen formula is another option for variegated plants since they tend to grow slower, so need less nitrogen, however nitrogen doesn't directly cause variegation, or cause a variegated plant to revert to green.
One solution is use a fertiliser for flowering, like GT Complete Focus or Dyna-Gro Bloom. Keeping the nutrient levels balanced but feeding less is another common approach for fertilising variegated plants. The form of nitrogen used also further reduces the risk of fertiliser burn.
Nitrogen is part of the chlorophyll molecule, and chlorophyll is responsible for the green pigment in leaves. It's true more nitrogen does produce greener leaves if there is a deficiency, however low nitrogen has not been shown to increase variegation (too little nitrogen can cause leaves to yellow, but that isn't the same as variegation).
Should you remove all-white or all-pink variegated leaves?
A common solution for a plant that starts to produce all-white or all-pink variegation is to cut back to the node where leaves had some green, in the hope that new growth continues with some green. However rather than do that straight away, another option is to shift the plant to a lower-light position, which can trigger a plant to produce more green in the new growth.
Do variegated plants have different watering needs?
Yes, watering is another area worth extra attention when caring for variegated plants. In general, variegated plants tend to be more sensitive to watering going wrong, and because they are slower-growers in general, they are also more prone to root rot.
A common reason for browning edges on variegated leaves is both under- and over-watering. Since those variegated leaves don't contribute to the plant as much as the all-green leaves do, when there is a lack of nutrients (whether it's water or minerals), variegated leaves may be the first to go. Plants in survival mode will sacrifice the less-valuable, variegated leaves first. Taking nutrients from those leaves to sustain the more valuable, greener growth, leaves brown edges behind.
Root rot is often misunderstood. Most hobbyists blame over-watering. In fact, under-watering can cause root rot also. If substrate stays moist too long, or you water again too soon, the lack of air space can drown the roots, causing root rot. This is the cause most of us are very familiar with.
However if you don't water heavily enough, or often enough, and let your plant dry out too much, or go too long between watering, that can also cause root rot. Being dry too long can cause delicate root hairs to die. When you finally water again, without those fine root hairs, your plant can't absorb water as fast as usual, or at all, which can again cause roots to drown and rot.
Is tap water okay for variegated plants?
For the same reason you fertilise variegated plants less than their all-green buddies, it's worth considering the water source you use. Variegated plants can be more salt-sensitive, and those excess mineral salts can come from your water, not just from fertiliser.
In the short-term, most indoor plants (variegated included), cope fine with tap water. In the long-term however, minerals in tap water can build-up in the soil and cause fertiliser burn.
Top watering, heavily enough so water pours out the drainage holes, helps flush out excess minerals (yes, this works even if you flush water using tap water). You could also use a chlorine- and fluoride-free water source such as rain water, distilled or RO water.
How to remove chlorine from tap water
Chlorine is essential for plants in small amounts, however excess from tap water can build-up and become toxic. If rain water, fish tank water, distilled water or another chlorine-free water source isn't available, here are 4 ways to remove chlorine.
One is to leave tap water standing for at least 24 hours (although it actually takes up to 5 days for chlorine to fully de-gas from standing water).
The second is to add a few drops of chlorine remover to instantly remove the chlorine. Use the same type you would for a fish tank as that's safe for fish and plants. Nutrafin Aqua-Plus is a popular one that's available in New Zealand. That product also has the benefit of chelating metal nutrients, making them more available to plants (some fertiliser offer chelated minerals also for the same reason).
Third is to boil tap water for 15 minutes, which releases the chlorine. Make sure to let it cool before use on your plants of course.
Fourth is to use a water filter that removes chlorine, like the popular Britta filters. If you keep your filtered water in the fridge, let it sit and get back to room temperature before watering to avoid cold-shock damaging the roots.
How to remove fluoride from tap water
Removing fluoride isn't as easy. Most home water filters don't remove fluoride. Leaving water to stand, using a fish tank chlorine remover, or boiling water won't remove fluoride.
There is a type of water filtration system that does, called RO water (Reverse Osmosis). RO water is free of fluoride, chlorine and other salts, but the process also removes calcium, iron and other beneficial essential minerals. Distilled water is another fluoride- and chloride-free water source.
However if you water your plants with RO or distilled water, make sure to add back in the essential minerals using a complete and balanced fertiliser.
So there you have it. Temperature, light, potting mix, fertiliser and water. All worth the extra effort in my books when it comes to caring for variegated plants. If you learned something new, please pay-it-forward and share this with a plant buddy.