How to Induce Variegation in Plants

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Variegated plants are highly sought after due to their novel appearance and beauty. They are also typically more expensive than non-variegated houseplants. 

And without the proper care and maintenance, a variegated plant can lose the beautiful trait and revert to being entirely green. 

So, many plant owners wonder if they could induce variegation to tap into the beauty of this trait without spending the top dollar every time.

If you want to know how to induce variegation in plants, this post is for you. It discusses what causes variegation in plants, how to induce the trait, and how to maintain variegation in your potted plants.

What Does Variegated Plant Mean?

A variegated plant is one that displays multiple colors on its leaves. Sometimes the plant can display variegation on its flowers, fruits, and stems as well. The areas displaying multiple colors in a plant will vary from one plant or species to the other.

The term comes from ‘variegatus,’ a Latin word that means “made of various colors or sorts.”

How Does Variegation Look in Houseplants? 

Variegation occurs as distinct white, yellow, or other colored markings on the leaves or flowers of a plant. Variegation can also appear on the stem, but leaves are the main areas of variegation in plants.

The markings can occur in the form of stripes, rings, patches, or tiny spots all over the variegated specimen. The variegation can manifest as regular or irregular shapes depending on the gene behavior responsible for the trait. 

In most cases, you will find variegation on the center or margins of the plant leaves, even though it can also appear in stems, flower petals, and fruits.

Even though white and yellow are the most common variegation colors, some plants can also have different shades of green, purple, and pink for variegation. 

Can You Induce Variegation in Plants? 

Yes, you can induce variegation in plants by influencing them to produce variegated tissues through various means. Some of the common methods of inducing variegation in plants include using chemical mutagens like ethyl methanesulfonate, conducting gene transposition, and exposing plant tissue to ionizing radiation.

However, none of these methods is easy to carry out or safe to practice at home. They are complex procedures that require careful and elaborate use of special equipment. 

But you can induce variegation more easily at home by propagating the trait from already variegated plants. This can involve using variegated stem cuttings or seeds.  

What Causes Variegation in Houseplants

Variegation can occur as a result of many causes, even though all of these factors influence the genetic makeup of the plant. As a result of that gene interference, the plant develops sections that lack the normal (often green) pigmentation.

As a result, the variegated plant is speckled with areas that lack the normal pigment, creating beautiful phenotypic patterns. 

Here are the main causes of variegation in plants. 

1. Viral infection

Viruses such as the mosaic virus monstera can interfere with the plant’s chlorophyll, leaving speckled marks on the leaves.

Such a viral infection can cause leaf discoloration, which becomes a permanent trait on the foliage. Such discoloration will resemble a leaf mosaic and will happen gradually over time.

A virus-infected plant undergoing variegation will start losing its green pigment slowly, with the affected areas turning brown with the spread of the viral infection. 

This condition is common among ornamental plants such as hostas.

Viral infection causing variegation image

2. Reflective Patternation

This is a variegation type that occurs naturally due to the trapping or air pockets between layers of plant tissues. 

This condition results in chlorophyll filling only the lower side of the leaf instead of being distributed all over the plant leaf. The lack of chlorophyll pigmentation on the upper side of the leaf within the affected areas leaves them speckled with colors other than green. 

Reflective patternation is the kind of variegation present in watermelon peperomia.

3. Natural genetic changes 

Gene mutations sometimes occur naturally, resulting in altered plant cells. One such trait resulting from naturally occurring gene mutations is variegation.

Monstera deliciosa variegata and Calathea spp are examples of plants that exhibit variegation due to natural gene mutations.

You can propagate this type of variegation by using stem cuttings from plants that have undergone such genetic changes and resulted in the trait. 

The important thing to note in this case is that the variegations are distinctive and unique to each plant. Therefore, you may not be able to replicate the exact variegation pattern by any available means.

4. Chemical substances 

Subjecting plant tissue, such as seeds, to certain chemical substances can induce variegation. Known chemical mutants include ethyl methane sulfonate (EMS). 

Such chemicals stimulate random alterations in the DNA of a plant, likely resulting in variegation. 

Nevertheless, chemically induced variegation is usually temporary and may be detrimental to the affected plant. However, some plants can survive and live with variegation resulting from a chemical mutant.

5. Radiation 

Plants exposed to certain radioactive materials can develop variegation through changes in the plant’s genetic makeup. 

Radiation affects plants the same way as chemical mutants in that it alters the plant’s DNA makeup. These alterations later manifest themselves in the form of unique patterns on the leaves of affected plants.

Radiation or gene breeding can also result in plants with resistance to certain diseases or increased harvests in the case of crops. 

How to Induce Variegation in Plants

If you are a fan of indoor plant leaves speckled with beautiful colors, you may want to know how to preserve the beauty or induce it in non-variegated species. Notice that some plants can lose variegation if they do not receive the appropriate care routine. 

Much as variegation is an elusive trait, it is not entirely impossible to preserve or create. Here are the known methods of making a non variegated plant variegated.   

i. Propagating variegated plants 

This is by far the only way to induce variegation at home. You will need to have plant seeds or cutting with the variegation gene already. 

Notice that most tropical plants will not carry the variegation trait in their seeds. So the only way to propagate the variegated variety successfully is through stem cuttings. For instance, if you want to propagate a Monstera deliciosa variegata plant, you must use stem cutting.

Once you have a variegated plant shoot, you can put it in a rooting medium such as a glass of distilled or rainwater. Once the roots have developed, you can transfer the sapling to a prepared pot. This approach should preserve and induce the variegation trait from the mother plant. 

ii. Applying chemical mutagens to the seeds 

Chemicals like EMS (ethyl methanesulfonate) have mutagen properties. Subjecting a plant’s seeds to this chemical will artificially induce variegation in the subject plant.

This process should involve soaking the active seeds of the plant you want to variegate into EMS solution for roughly 6 to 12 hours. Alternatively, you can soak the roots of your chosen seedlings into this chemical mutagen.

While this explanation may make the process appear straightforward, the actual procedure isn’t. 

Soaking the plant specimen in a chemical substance does not guarantee success. Sometimes the process may only hurt the plant without producing the desired variegation. 

Ideally, you may have to carry out multiple trials before succeeding. This makes the process time-consuming.

And the resulting variegation will be only temporary, lasting about half a year. So if you want to sustain the variegation, you must apply it topically repeatedly over time. 

iii. Using radiation to alter plant DNA 

If you prefer to stay away from carcinogenic chemicals with temporary results, you can use radiation to alter the plant’s DNA to achieve variegation. 

Using radiation to induce variegation involves exposing the plant specimen to high doses of X and gamma rays to initiate a change in the plant’s DNA.

DNA alteration through radiation is a complex method with hard-to-control results. While the mutations resulting from this process should induce variegations, they can sometimes result in something different such as making the plant grow smaller or bigger.

iv. Rearranging the genes through transposition

Unlike radiation or chemical use that leaves the results to chance, gene transposition alters the arrangement of the genes directly. It is a complicated process that you cannot do at home, but the results are more accurate because you can control the outcome. 

The process involves experts changing the position of specific genes in the plant’s DNA. Rearranging the genes changes the properties of the plant involved. 

Since the experts can target specific genes responsible for the desired feature, they can get more accurate results this way.

v. Introducing a virus to cause mutations 

Viruses tend to cause dramatic changes in the plant’s DNA. Introducing mutation-causing viruses allows them to disguise themselves as normal cells and cause alterations from within the plant.

To introduce variegation, you must introduce a virus that specifically targets the chlorophyll and not just any part of the plant. 

Most viruses will likely cause irreparable damage to the plant. However, here are some viruses that are known to induce discoloration in the plant leaves by causing chlorosis, or the permanent change in chlorophyll levels within a plant.

  • Honeysuckle yellow vein virus. As the name suggests, this virus creates a web of yellow veins on the Japanese honeysuckle leaves. It, however, does not have the same effect on other plants. 
  • Abutilon mosaic virus. This virus creates irregular white and yellow patterns on the leaves of the Chinese lantern tree and the Abutilon plants. The level of discoloration depends on the infection level. 
  • Tobacco mosaic virus. Perhaps this is the most prolific virus you can use. Unlike the first two above, it affects many plant species and causes yellow patches. 

vi. Using certain antibiotics

Recent studies have found that certain antibiotics can cause alterations in plant genes. While using antibiotics to induce variegation in plants is relatively new, it is already proven to have good potential. 

One of the well-known antibiotics used so far is streptomycin. Like chemical mutagens, these antibiotics alter the plant’s DNA, potentially resulting in the desired discolorations in the leaves and other plant parts, such as the flowers and fruits. 

Antibiotic use is not accessible to regular or hobbyist horticulturists since the procedure is slightly complex. 

Also, antibiotic use may lead to the rise of strains of bacteria that are resistant to current antibiotics. This environmental hazard may make the use of antibiotics to produce variegated plants counterproductive.  

Resistant strains of bacteria are more difficult to kill and can put the affected populations at greater risk of disease. 

vii. Cross-breeding plants possessing the trait

If you are a gardener or horticulturist, you are likely aware of plant cross-breeding, which dates back many decades. 

It can occur naturally when the wind or animals transfer pollen from one plant to another, resulting in offspring with shared characteristics. 

However, cross-breeding can also be done in controlled settings where the male part of one plant’s flower is introduced to the female part of a different plant’s flower to pollinate it. The resulting fruit is then harvested, and its seeds are grown.

The plant resulting from this process will be a hybrid of the two parent plants. 

While people frequently do this practice as a fun pastime to create new cultivars, it can also be done to create disease-resistant plant varieties. The hybrids can also have more delicious fruits or ones with fewer or more seeds.

In the case of variegation, you will need to cross-pollinate a plant with natural variegation with a non-variegated plant to induce the trait. 

When done successfully, the resulting hybrid should have variegated leaves. Notice that the results of this process can be highly unpredictable despite the process being relatively easy and doable at home. 

The resulting cultivars will not have the desired variegation on their leaves in several cases. The cultivars can also result in undesirable qualities unforeseen during cross-breeding. 

And like many cultivars, maintaining the plant variegation when propagating the cultivar may be a challenge. Some of these hybrids lose their variegation when propagated from seeds or stem cuttings. 

viii. Gene splicing

Gene splicing is another method that involves targeting specific genes in the plant’s DNA. However, while gene transposition involves rearranging the genes to create the desired trait, gene splicing involves removing certain genes. 

It is a complex procedure that requires special lab equipment to identify and excise unwanted genes from the DNA of the specific houseplant. 

Removing certain genes results in the joining together of the remaining genes in the plant’s DNA, resulting in the desired traits such as variegation mutation.

How to Maintain Variegation in Houseplants 

Once you have successfully induced variegation in your houseplants, you will need a way to prevent its loss.

Without the right care routine, variegated plants can revert to being completely green. Here are ways to prevent that from happening: 

  • Provide the plant with plenty of indirect light. Variegated plants have less chlorophyll than non-variegated plants. The few chlorophyll cells must work harder to feed the entire plant, which requires more sunlight.  
  • Prune out any new leaves that are non-variegated. Non-variegated leaves have more chlorophyll, producing more sugars to feed the plant. This can send a signal to encourage the plant to produce more such leaves. Cutting them out prevents such feedback. 
  • Use low-nitrogen fertilizer, which keeps chlorophyll production low, preserving the existing variegation.


How do you encourage variegation in plants?

You can encourage variegation by placing the plant in full sun. This is because variegated plants do not have as much chlorophyll as solid green leaves to absorb the sunlight needed for their food synthesis. For an indoor plant, you can place it near a sunny window to promote variegation. 

What chemical is used to variegate plants?

Ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS) is the chemical used to variegate plants. The method involves soaking the seeds or roots of the desired plant in EMS for a specified period to produce mutations that result in variegated plants. 

How do you variegate reverted plants?

The best way to variegate reverted plants is to remove the reverted leaves or branches to where the section was last variegated. Any variegated branch that reverts to solid green will likely never grow variegated leaves again.

Can a Monstera become variegated?

Yes, a Monstera can become variegated, just like any plant. This can happen naturally when gene mutations happen within the plant’s DNA, resulting in a genetically variegated plant such as the Monstera deliciosa variegata.

Conclusion on Inducing Variegation in Plants 

Plants can achieve variegation when treated with chemical mutagens, radiation, mutagen viruses, or certain antibiotics. These treatments trigger mutations by altering the genetic makeup of the affected plant, resulting in variegation. 

However, the results of these methods can be incredibly unpredictable, so experts prefer to induce variegation through gene splicing or transposition that targets the specific genes responsible for the desired trait. 

Nonetheless, the best way to produce variegated plants at home is through cross-breeding or propagating variegated specimens. 

We hope this article helps you create and maintain variegated houseplants successfully. Let us know your thoughts in the comments. 

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