Philodendrons come in all shapes and sizes, but within this genus of almost 500 different types is a small subset of variegated varieties that sport a diverse range of colors and patterns. Obviously, these unique varieties are highly sought after and, because of their rarity, can cost a pretty penny to acquire. Why are they so rare? And, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on one, how the heck do you take care of it?
Due to their unstable nature and their labor-intensive propagation methods, many variegated varieties continue to be rare, scarce, and expensive. Typically, their care is quite similar to non-variegated Philodendron varieties, although they often require higher light levels to maintain their patterns and colors.
Variegated Philodendrons have really picked up in popularity over the last decade and show no signs of slowing down in the near future. It seems everyone is interested in owning one of these showstoppers. If you’d like to pick one up yourself, you should make sure you understand what variegation is, how it works in Philodendrons, and why many popular variegated varieties are so rare and expensive.
In this article, we’ll go over everything from how variegation works and how it drives popularity and cost, as well as the best ways to take care of your own variegated Philodendron so it continues to show off its unique pattern and coloring for years to come.
What is Variegation?
Variegation is the appearance of natural deviations in a plant’s coloring on the leaves and stems. Usually, this is due to a genetic mutation that occurs within the cells of the plant that alter the plant’s ability to produce chlorophyll.
Chlorophyll is the main pigment present throughout the plant and is an essential element of photosynthesis. It also gives the plant tissue its typical green color. Variegated plants end up with sections of tissue that have reduced numbers of chlorophyll, altering the color of that section, and creating patches that are light green, yellow, orange, red, pink, brown, or even white.
Depending on the variety and the type of variegation, many different patterns can emerge, such as stripes, dots, irregular blocks, or even a marbled appearance.
How Do Philodendrons Variegate?
As I mentioned, Philodendron is a large genus of plants, with about 480 different varieties. Many of these varieties sport unique patterns and different colors, all of which can be considered variegation. However, there are two different types of variegation at work here.
Some varieties of Philodendron exhibit certain colorings on their leaves that are consistent across the whole plant. You may find green leaves stippled or dotted with cream or silver accents, with new leaves sporting the same patterns.
This type of variegation is called “pattern-gene” or “natural” variegation. What this means is that the cause of the variegation is written into the DNA code of the plant, so every plant in the variety will grow in a similar fashion. Generally, this type of variegation is considered much more stable, but tends to be more subtle.
Then there are the much rarer, more showstopping types of variegated Philodendrons (i.e. Brasil, Pink Princess, White Knight, Burle Marx, etc.). Unlike the pattern-gene varieties, their variegation is caused by a genetic mutation within the plant that rarely occurs in nature.
This “chimeral variegation” results in a single plant having two sets of DNA, one normal and one mutated. The mutated DNA is only present in parts of the plant and it affects the amount of chlorophyll produced in those sections, with the rest of plant staying green. This means that each plant with chimeral variegation will have its own unique patterns and coloring.
Also, because this type of variegation is due to a genetic mutation, it tends to be a pretty unstable trait and the plant could easily revert back to being a normal green color.
The rarity of chimeral variegation and its tendency to be unstable are both reasons why some of these popular variegated Philodendron varieties are so sought after.
Can You Make a Variegated Philodendron?
The thing about these variegated Philodendrons is that, despite them being somewhat unstable, they really are interesting specimens, many sporting beautiful coloring you won’t find in some of the more mainstream varieties.
However, whenever you have a rare product with a lot of demand, it’s only a matter of time before the price begins to skyrocket, making many of these varieties out of reach for the average houseplant enthusiast. Naturally, folks begin to wonder if they can create their own variegated varieties.
The quick answer is no.
Chimeral variegation is extremely rare in natural settings and, as I already mentioned, very unstable. Sure, there is a tiny chance you possess a Philodendron that will experience a genetic mutation, but it’s not likely. A general rate for this type of variegation is one in several thousand or more.
There is some evidence that certain fungal strains or viruses that infect plants may cause them to variegate as a side effect. I urge you to ignore any mad scientist impulses you may get and do not go purposely exposing your Philodendron to disease. This is a recipe for disaster and, most likely, you will end up with a dead plant.
Why Are Variegated Philodendrons So Expensive?
These vibrantly variegated Philodendrons are all subject to the same perils of supply and demand. As many varieties have started catching people’s eyes and growing in popularity, the demand for these plants has overshadowed how fast they can be produced.
Because of how rare the genetic mutations that cause these variegations are, the stock used to produce more plants, either through tissue culture or stem cuttings, has remained relatively low. These types of propagation are invasive and only a certain amount can be removed from a plant at one time, so it can take several years before a reputable grower can secure an adequate production supply.
Also, both of those methods of propagation are labor-intensive and can be expensive, so growers often build that additional cost into the price of a new plant.
The rarity, scarcity, and demand of these varieties can sometimes drive the price for a single plant (or even a single cutting) to astronomical levels. Although some plant collectors wouldn’t bat an eye at dropping several thousand dollars all at once, this often means that these varieties are out of reach to a good portion of houseplant collectors.
The good news is that, over time, as suppliers catch up with demand, and propagation technologies improve and become more affordable, prices for specific varieties may drop significantly.
This was the case with ‘Pink Princess’, a variegated variety that sports beautiful pink and white blotches across its leaves. As its popularity skyrocketed over the last several years, the price per plant exploded. Now, after years of plant suppliers catching up with the trend, there seems to be many more ‘Pink Princesses’ to go around. While still considered a rare variety, it is much more accessible and affordable for the general public.
How to Care for a Variegated Philodendron
While it’s true that many variegated Philodendrons are considered rare and hard to come by, they aren’t unattainable. If you happen to already have one in your home, you may be wondering if there’s anything specific you should be doing to help them perform at their best.
The good news is that variegated varieties do not require much more than any regular variety needs. Aside from a few additional care tips, most are just as easy and low-maintenance!
Water any variegated Philodendron as you normally would. Just like non-variegated varieties, they like their soil evenly moist, so only water when the top two inches of soil have dried out.
Overwatering can cause illness or distress in your plant, both of which hinder its ability to maintain variegation, so keep an eye on how often you are watering and ensure your plant has good drainage.
This is a biggie! Most Philodendrons do best in lots of bright, indirect sunlight. At least six hours a day, if not more.
Your variegated variety will likely crave even more. Remember that variegation is caused by fluctuations in the amount of chlorophyll present in different sections of the plant. Generally, the more variegated a plant is, the less chlorophyll it has.
Also, keep in mind chlorophyll is necessary for the plant to carry out photosynthesis, its source of food. A variegated plant will likely need more light exposure to ensure the plant can create the resources it needs to thrive.
If that standard is not being met, a variegated plant will often start compensating by producing leaves with more chlorophyll in them to make up for the lack of resources. This causes the variegated patterns and colors to fade to green, and you’re left with an expensive, non-variegated Philodendron.
Combat this by always making sure your plant has plenty of ambient light throughout the day. My variegated plants always get the prime spots in my living room, the brightest room in the house. If you are still struggling to provide enough light, consider adding a grow light to supplement.
Also, be sure to keep your variegated varieties protected from direct sunlight. Variegated leaves are much more tender than green ones, so too much direct sun can easily burn your plant.
Pruning is an important care task that often aids Philodendrons in producing healthy, compact growth and keeping the plant looking bushy and full. It can also be a handy tool to maintain the variegated portion of a plant.
Because variegation is caused by a lack of chlorophyll in the leaf tissue, many plants will begin producing more unvariegated leaves to keep photosynthesis running efficiently. While this is a normal process for the plant, without a little strategic pruning, you risk losing much of the variegation you’ve been striving for.
For variegated, trailing Philodendron varieties, occasionally pruning back longer vines will bolster new growth near the base of the plant, keeping it looking full. Keep an eye out for vining stems that are sporting a lot of non-variegated leaves and clip those back first. By doing this, you’re freeing up more energy for the plant to put into growing its variegated portions.
For self-heading or tree-like variegated varieties, you need to be much more careful. Generally, these types of Philodendrons rarely need to be pruned, but you can still strategically remove some of the non-variegated leaves from the plant to encourage variegated portions to grow in. Just remember that you need to maintain some normal, chlorophyll-packed leaves so the plant can continue to secure its own resources.
Also, be on the lookout for the occasional brown leaf. Variegated leaves are generally not as healthy as non-variegated ones, and can die off faster as a result. Feel free to remove any discolored, dying, or dead leaves from the plant as soon as possible.
Although often considered rare and sporting a price tag that supports the claim, variegated Philodendrons are worth your time. If you are willing to spend the money, or are a lucky recipient of a variegated cutting, you can have a truly stunning plant specimen on display in your home.
These chimeral variegated varieties have some of the coolest patterns and amazing colors, so knowing how to take care of them is essential for them to thrive in your home. Be sure you are giving them excellent care and providing plenty of light so those variegation patterns come through strong and your plant stays healthy for years to come. Good luck!