Variegation is the Garden Spice of Life

Coprosma ‘Tequila Sunrise’
I have known gardeners who were obsessed with variegated plants.  Their gardens were devoted exclusively to these schizophrenic beauties.  Variegated refers to plants with leaves possessing more than one color.  Most often, variegated plants have just two colors on their leaves, either white and green or yellow and green.  But sometimes, for good measure,
orange, red and/or pink are mixed in with the more predictable foliar colors.
‘Tequila Sunrise’ sounds like a kaleidoscopic hangover.  Or it may simply refer to the sunrise that lights up the desert skies above the town of Tequila, in central Mexico, a place known for a drink manufactured there which is distilled from the blue agave (Agave tequilana), an endemic species.
For our purposes here, ‘Tequila Sunrise’ is the name of a cultivar of a woody perennial known as mirror plant (Coprosma ‘Tequila Sunrise’).  The mirror plant, indigenous to Australia, New Zealand, and the island of Borneo, has foliage that truly shines, as though it had been varnished and polished, if not quite to the extent that you can actually see your reflection looking into its leaves. Many cultivars are available, each with a different combination of foliar colors.  ‘Tequila Sunrise’ leaves are yellow and green when they first emerge, but soon thereafter display an irradiance of burgundy and pink.
Although these plants have a reputation for being finicky, they do fine when left alone and will accept minimal water, as in a single weekly soaking, or more frequent irrigation.  I have seen them grow for years without attention but they definitely prefer morning sun, showing signs of stress when given all day sun exposure.  In the South Pacific, tribes that share a habitat with the mirror plant utilize its foliage as an anti-biotic to prevent wound infections and grind its seeds, much like coffee beans, for brewing into an energy drink.
In the same precise exposure in which my neighborhood ‘Tequila Sunrise’ is flourishing, there is a variegated showy hebe (Hebe speciosa ‘Variegata’).  Hebe (HEE-bee) comes from the same part of the world as mirror plant and is noted for its ravishing cone-shaped flowers that may be pink, violet, blue, or reddish-purple.  But this variegated cultivar is grown not for its floral display but, rather, for its tidy cream and green leaves.  Although all Hebes are recommended for perfectly drained soil, I have seen showy hebe prosper where soil was somewhat compacted.  I would not plant a whole hedge where soil drainage is questionable, but it might be worth trying a plant or two just for the fun of it.  Hebe has also been known to suffer in sandy soil from inadequate moisture so, during hot weather, water it at least twice a week and keep the surrounding soil covered with mulch.
The two most popular variegated plants in the Valley are variegated mock orange (Pittosporum tobira ‘Variegata’)  and gold variegated spindle tree (Euonymous ‘Old Gold’).  No plant thrives in such a broad spectrum of light exposures as variegated mock orange.  It handles both all day sun and significant shade with ease.  Leaves emerge emerald green and white and fade to dull blue-green and cream.  Euonymous (you-AH-ni-muss) ‘Old Gold,’ on the other hand, has an absolute demand for at least half of the day’s sun, if not more.  You will instantly know if your ‘Old Gold’ needs more light if it develops powdery mildew foliar fungus, an automatic response to insufficient exposure to the sun’s rays.  ‘Old Gold’ makes a wonderful design statement when planted next to bronze flax.  It also makes a nice primary color contrast when planted betwixt red flowered bedding begonias and blue flowered rosemary.  For shady garden spots, select from the gold splotched and green variegated Hawaiian elf (Schefflera arboricola ‘Variegata’) and the gold and green striped variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’).
Tip of the Week:  I want to thank William Campbell for sending a picture of the Victorian box tree (Pittosporum undulatum) that has grown to a height of thirty feet in his Silver Lake backyard.  He also sent a close up of its diminutive, yet highly fragrant flowers.  In my humble opinion, this is one of the most elegant trees, if not necessarily up close, then certainly from a distance.  It is frost sensitive when young so make sure it is protected on cold nights during its first two years of growth.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a large stand of Victorian box trees. They were planted as a barrier between two properties in Santa Monica, less than a block from that familiar bluff that overlooks the Pacific. I remember staring at those trees in reverential silence, turning away, and then gazing upon them again. They simply did not look real. The leaves were shining so brightly, almost too brightly for this world. Their green was dark and glistening, as if each leaf was a rare sapphire of many facets. To say the leaves looked polished would not do them justice, unless you said “polished by angels.” The trees had reached their mature height of more than 40 feet and yet they seemed to be taller, much taller still, reaching up to capture and reflect ever more brilliantly the light that was streaming down during a moment which, it seemed, would never end. Their domed silhouettes against the sky appeared, at first glance, to have been shaped by human hands, but longer scrutiny made plain that such perfect symmetry could only be the result of a natural, heaven-sent habit of growth.
Still, the Victorian box has a down side.  It is highly susceptible to oak root fungus so never plant it where oak trees once grew since it will not be terribly long-lived under such circumstances.  It is commonly encountered as a volunteer seedling yet, if you want a mature specimen, you will have to special order it through your local nursery since it is not commonly sold except by growers to the landscaping trade.

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