Variegation is a sought-after mutation that occurs in plants resulting in a beautiful color variation among the leaves, usually in the form of white streaks. Looking at the beauty of variegated species, you might wonder how to induce variegation in plants at home. Unfortunately, it can be a hazardous process since most mutations occur either naturally through genetics or by harmful exposure to chemicals or radiation. Aside from turning to dangerous experiments, there are ways to encourage existing variegation and how it can be used to make more variegated plants.
What Does Plant Variegation Look Like?
Plant variegation appears on the leaves as random streaks of different colors. The most common color is white, though other options, such as yellow or light green, can also occur. This interesting variation of different shades adds a specific personality to the plant, and since it happens randomly, it can make the green pet more valuable.
Some plants, such as Monstera, that sport variegation are rare and can become a great addition to the garden. These cuttings can be very expensive and, if not cared for properly, can easily revert to their fully green coloration since variegation is an unstable mutation. Maintaining variegation requires proper care, and propagating the plant through cuttings, and even seeds can lead to more variegated offspring.
What Causes Variegation in Plants?
There are a few different ways to cause variegation in plants. However, most of the time, it occurs randomly. Here are the known causes of plant variegation:
- Mutations. Color production occurs in the chloroplasts of the plant, and when these chloroplasts are mutated, they do not produce as much of the green pigment known as chlorophyll.
- Viruses. Illnesses, like a mosaic virus, can affect chlorophyll production. When the plant gets 'sick', the virus can reduce the amount of chlorophyll in a plant's leaves, leading to variegation.
- Chimerism. A chimera contains two different sets of genes. However, in the case of variegated plants, they are usually spliced together. The different types of plant tissue present in the organism can account for the differences in chloroplasts and chlorophyll present in the leaves. Chimeras may be sterile and often require vegetative propagation to keep this variegated pattern.
- Gene-splicing. Human intervention in the plant's genome is why many popular cultivars of ornamental and food crops exist. However, it can also be utilized to induce variegation in plants. Gene-splicing is done mostly on a commercial scale since it is a costly process that requires specific techniques and machinery to excise and rearrange certain genes for the desired outcome of variegation.
Can We Force a Plant to Variegate?
Technically, yes, a plant can be forced to variegate. However, the process might be hazardous to the plant and the plant's owner. One would need to create a mutation or introduce a virus to the plant to force variegation. Variegating a plant chemically, through the introduction of a virus, or via radiation can ultimately kill the plant, so it is likely not worth the risk for the small chance of inducing variegation.
How to Induce Variegation
If you have a regular plant, you can try inducing variegation. However, we can't recommend it due to concerns for your and your plant's health. Knowing the procedure of variegating the plant doesn't make it any easier. Here are the means that can cause variegation:
- Chemical mutagens. This method requires soaking the seeds of the desired plant in chemicals, usually something called ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS). Obtaining this chemical can be difficult, and it's a known carcinogen. Only use this method if you can implement all the necessary safety precautions.
- Gene splicing. It isn't exactly an 'at-home' method since gene splicing requires excising unwanted genes from the plant's DNA to join together or rearrange DNA to induce the variegation mutation.
- Radiation. Exposing a rooted cutting to radiation (through either x-rays or gamma rays, both of which are hazardous to live organisms if exposed) essentially mixes up the DNA to rearrange them, potentially inducing variegation. Again, there are more realistic and safe ways to get a variegated plant.
- Viral introduction. It's difficult to isolate a virus, such as mosaic virus, though if you did, it could be introduced to your desired plant to cause virally induced variegation. However, this is irreversible and can lower your plant's productivity, leading to smaller leaves or lower leaf production.
How to Variegate Plants at Home
The abovementioned methods make it clear that it is challenging (and dangerous) to variegate a plant at home. However, there are some steps on how to encourage variegation in plants that already have variegation:
- Give your plant adequate light. Variegated plants are at a disadvantage when it comes to processing sunlight into energy due to the lack of chlorophyll production. Ensuring your plant is getting enough light to compensate for this energy loss is a good way to encourage further growth. Too little light can stress the plant and revert the variegation, and too much can burn the foliage, ruining the appearance of any variegated leaves.
- Propagate existing variegated strands. Propagating variegated leaves will give the cutting a higher chance of developing the variegation. The mother plant will continue to pass on the mutated genes. It is one of the best methods of maintaining and growing variegated plants.
- Maintain constant variables such as sun, temperature, and water. Keeping the right conditions can also preserve the variegation. Alterations in light, temperature, or watering can cause the plant to undergo a state of stress, making the already unstable variegation mutation revert to all-green leaves. Once a variegated plant reverts completely, it is very unlikely the variegation will come back.
How to Keep Variegation in Plants
Once you get your hands on a variegated plant, or, if you are fortunate, and your green pet spontaneously variegated, you'll want to keep it! You can do some things to maintain your plant's appearance, but remember that it's difficult to control random mutations! Here's what you can do to keep variegation:
- Prune out non-variegated growth. By cutting out the non-variegated leaves, you are lowering the pigment production in the plant, ultimately keeping the variegation pattern better preserved.
- Use low-nitrogen fertilizer. It keeps the chlorophyll production in the leaves low, preserving the desirable variegation.
- Maintain the temperature and environment. Plants are sensitive to environmental changes, and the sudden introduction of new conditions can make your plant stress out and revert to its non-variegated coloration.
How Do Plants Become Variegated?
Plants become variegated naturally through random mutations resulting in a lack of chloroplast and/or poor chlorophyll (or no chlorophyll) production. Other means of variegation include viruses and chemical and radiation exposure.
Can We Make a Non-variegated Plant Variegated?
A non-variegated plant can become variegated through outside means, such as chemical exposure or radiation. A non-variegated plant can produce variegated leaves, though this is rare and can be unstable under unfavorable conditions.
Can We Force a Monstera to Variegate?
A Monstera can be forced to variegate using a few different methods, though chemical mutagens or radiation doesn't guarantee variegation and can cause a whole set of other issues that can damage or kill the plant.
Can a Plant Lose Variegation and What Causes It?
A plant can lose its variegation. Low light, changes in the seasons, or weather can cause the plant to revert to its natural color to preserve its health.
Can Reverted Plant Variegation Come Back?
Plants that have reverted in variegation completely have a very slim chance, about 1%, of adapting streaks again. However, if your plant still has some variegated leaves, it will likely produce more in the future.