Anytime you find a plant with variegated leaf colors, it’s an instant win. Rather than being a simple shade of green, these leaves have multiple colors and markings, creating unrivaled interest that stands out in the garden. But add those variegations to your succulent plants, and you’ve got a whole new level of drama.
So what exactly is variegation? What causes it? And — most importantly — what are the most enticing variegated succulents to grow?
What are Variegated Succulents?
All leaves on any plant have chlorophyll — a pigment that’s responsible for the plant’s ability to absorb light in order to provide energy for photosynthesis. But when this chlorophyll — and other pigments — are unevenly distributed, it creates variegation.
Whenever you see a green leaf, that’s chlorophyll — and when you see different shades of green, or white, yellow edges or markings, that means that chlorophyll is less concentrated in those areas than it is in the green parts of the leaf. Plants with this type of variegation are more prone to sunburn because they don’t have that even distribution of chlorophyll to protect it — and this is why so many of the plants with green/white, green/yellow leaves are ideal for the shade garden. With this type of variegated succulent, however, you’ll want to aim for bright but indirect light rather than full-on shade.
Specially designed for succulents:
Now, when you spot leaves that have green and other colors (pink, purple, orange, for example), what you’re seeing is additional pigments like carotenoid or anthocyanin in addition to the chlorophyll, it’s just that the other pigment colors have taken over and are stronger. These variegations don’t tend to sunburn as a result, either.
And keep in mind, too, that variegation doesn’t just refer to different colored margins or veins of a leaf — it can also look like mottled colors (similar to blended watercolors), stripes, spots, and blotches.
What Causes Variegation?
There are a number of ways a plant can develop variegation, but the most common is genetic mutation, and it’s something of an accident of nature. A beautiful one, but an accident nonetheless. So, while some plants change appearance over time as a way of adapting to their environment, the same is not likely true for variegated plants.
How are Variegated Succulents Propagated?
If you keep in mind that these succulent leaf colorations are nature’s beautiful accident, it will help you understand why they need to be propagated in a different way to ensure that lovely variegation gets passed on to the next generation. While it’s possible that the plant will indeed pass on the new coloration, most times, it won’t. So if you (or a breeder) really loves that pink-tinged succulent leaf, you’ll have to take stem cuttings or propagate a leaf. If you’re not sure how to do that — no worries! Check out our article on succulent propagation below!
5 Variegated Succulents to Grow
- Echeveria ‘Compton Carousel’: Also known as variegated hens and chicks, this succulent has the same growth habit as the non-variegated variety — 6” tall with rosettes up to 6” wide, with adorable babies or “chicks” as the offspring. The leaves, however, have a soft blue-gray color with creamy edges (or margins) and a subtle pink tinge to the tips. And the flowers? How about foot long stems with orange/yellow blooms that arch out over the plant? USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11b.
- Sempervivum ‘Corsair’: ‘Corsair’ has those mounding rosettes that we love in succulents, but boasts a lovely color change as the plant grows. The center is the standard green shade, morphing into an intense pinkish-red hue on the outer (and older) leaves. This sunset appearance is complemented by small pink flowers that bloom in the summertime. USDA Hardiness Zones 4a-10a.
- Euphorbia poisson ii f. variegata: When it grows in the ideal location, this beauty is actually a succulent shrub that reaches up to 6’ tall! For most gardeners, though, it’s an annual of much smaller stature. The large leaves have a range of green shadings edged with a buttery, creamy yellow, and flowers of the same color. Most euphorbias are not as drought tolerant as other succulents, though, so plan to water them every 7-10 days during the summer. USDA Hardiness Zones 10a-11b.
- Echeveria ‘Dionysos’: Looking for a cute but somewhat oddball variegated flowering succulent? Try ‘Dionysos’ — it stays at a compact 3” and 4” wide, but the leaves are pretty out there. The basic leaf color is olive green to grey-green or even white-green, with reddish-brown edges and spots. And rather than the spots being a predictable pattern, they’re tiny and irregular, lending even more intrigue to this already unusual plant. Look for red-yellow flowers on 1’ long stems to complete the unique appearance. USDA Hardiness Zones 9a-11b.
- Aeonium tabuliforme f. variegata: This aeonium has the same rosette growth, but in a flatter and more spreading form. While the rosette grows outward to about 18”, the height is a mere 2” tall. The leaves are plump with creamy yellow and light green colorations, with small yellow flowers that appear in the spring. USDA Hardiness Zones 10a-11b.