Everything You Need to Know About Caring for This Year’s Trendiest Plant

updated May 10, 2021
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The verdict is in: Variegated plants are at the top of all the “must-have” houseplant lists this year. Dive into any online houseplant forum and you’ll see dozens of folks in search of their variegated dream plants — they’re the darlings of the community.

Variegation gives old standby plants — monstera, pothos, hoya, and more — a fresh new style, blending the expected green tones with large swaths of white, light green, or pink. But even though you might know how to care for a monstera (or a pothos, or a hoya, etc), the care can differ for their variegated versions. Really!

Here’s everything you need to know about helping this year’s trendiest plant thrive in your home.

A quick heads-up: Note that any specific plants mentioned in this story or any others may be toxic to pets or humans. “Toxic” plants can induce symptoms that range from mild (upset stomach) to severe (possible death). If you have a cat, dog, or kid, make sure you research the plants ahead of time on a reputable site like ASPCA.orgPetPoisonHelpline.orgPoison.org, or by calling your vet or pediatrician.

Credit: Kate Bartnik/Shutterstock

First: What is a variegated plant? 

You might be wondering what a variegated plant actually is. By definition, “variegated” means to “have discrete markings of different colors.” This word more often applies to the foliage of plants, but it’s not unheard of for the blooms of a plant to be variegated. The coloration might be blotched or streaked with a lighter color than the rest of the plant. The most common variegation colors are white, light green, and pink.  

Each pattern of variegation has a different look and is caused by a different catalyst, but there are three basic types:

Chimeral Variegation

Chimeral variegation is by far the most common type of variegation. It is caused by a type of genetic mutation with two different chromosomal makeups in a single plant, which causes only some of the plant tissue to produce chlorophyll. The result is a plant with white or yellow variegated patterns that appear against the green leaf. 

Once you delve into the world of variegation, you’ll realize that a lot of variegated cultivars are considered “rare” because only certain chimeral variegated plants can be propagated from cuttings. Also, the chimera variegation will not be the same in a cutting when you attempt to propagate from the mother plant. Long story short: You’ll never get the same chimera variegation twice.

You’ll find this kind of variegation in most of the popular variegated monstera varieties. 

Reflective Variegation

If you have a variegated plant that shows variegation that is shiny or shimmery in appearance, you have a plant that has reflective variegation. Sometimes called “blister” variegation, the unique coloring forms when teeny tiny air pockets form between the layers of the leaf. When the light reflects off those pockets, it causes it to shine. Satin pothos and Philodendron gloriosum have this type of variegation. 

Pattern-Gene Variegation

You might come across a plant that has what’s called “pattern-gene variegation.” These are plants that are naturally patterned; it’s a trait that’s passed down through the DNA of the plant and easily controlled by breeders and growers. You’ll see this type of coloring in many Marantaceae family members.

It is very important to remember that every variegated plant has a different genetic code. This can make the variegation stable or unstable. Unstable variegation causes the variegated leaf to turn back to solid green without proper light. The stability of the variegation also controls what type of pattern emerges on new growth. If the plant’s genetics are messed up, it might produce an all white leaf. While it is a gorgeous sight to behold, you can count on that white leaf dying off within a few days, since. pure white foliage cannot perform photosynthesis. Don’t get attached. (Sorry!)

Because of this scientific fact, if you see a listing of a plant for sale that touts pure white or pink foliage — or variegation that leaves very little green on the leaf — you can assume that it is a scam. These plants cannot live and are either photoshopped or chemically treated.

Here are some popular variegated plants you might see:

Credit: mokjc/Shutterstock

So, how do you care for a variegated plant?

Variegated plants need slightly different care than non-variegated plants. The following tips can be considered generalized care for all variegated plants, but some might require a tweaked routine. Do the research on your individual plants for the best results. 

Give variegated plants more light.

Since the variegation in these leaves have less chlorophyll than a non-variegated leaf, your variegated plant will need more light exposure in order to thrive. As a rule, the more variegation the plant has, the more light it needs. If your plant isn’t getting enough light and the variegation isn’t stable (see above) the plant will respond by making totally green leaves in order to perform the appropriate amount of photosynthesis. 

You’ll likely need to use distilled water.

Variegated foliage tends to be more sensitive to the minerals and  possible trace chemicals in tap water. For example, the Calathea “White Fusion” will only thrive when watered exclusively with distilled water. 

If your plant starts to brown around the edges and into the variegation, you can first assume that it has something to do with the type of water you’re using. When in doubt, stick with distilled water.

Credit: Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock

Be cautious with fertilizer.

Like with the tap water, variegated plants are especially sensitive to fertilizer. If you over-fertilize even a little bit, your plant might up and die on you. It’s not out of the blue — there’s science behind it. Variegated plants cannot handle the extra nitrogen that is being supplied by the fertilizer. Instead of giving the plant a helping hand, the nitrogen attaches to the roots of the plants and keeps it from absorbing water. 

So, can you fertilize? Yes. Just proceed with caution and get really familiar with the lines of the measuring cup. 

Keep a special watch-out for pests.

Ah yes. The dreaded pests. You’ll find, over the course of the variegated plant ownership, that your plant is especially susceptible to pests — particularly spider mites, which find that variegation especially tasty. If you don’t watch out, they’ll take over your plant and before you know it, you’ll have a dying plant on your hands. Check your plants weekly for pests or invest in a solid pesticide so that you’re ready when the time comes. 

Apartment Therapy’s Styling with Plants vertical was written and edited independently by the Apartment Therapy editorial team and generously underwritten by Greendigs.