Updated: Nov 7, 2022
Somewhat Marmite-like in terms of personal preference, variegated plants are generally lumped into 'like' or 'don't like'. The same is true of variegated climbers, which are far less commonly seen than their green-leaved equivalents. Click here for a link to my 2020 prediction post on Climbing Plants.
While it is true that there are lots of gardeners, designer and horticulturists who consistently adopt the position of 'I don't like variegated plants' (and I have been guilty of this myself in the past), I'd argue that, if pressed, all would be able to name one that they did actually like and rate.
An article on variegated plants in general would be a huge and sprawling feast of delights, though it may also be too much for anyone to handle, so here we will focus only on variegated climbing plants. A group not well represented in most gardens and perhaps, just perhaps, worth a second look.
While this won't be a definitive guide, it will hopefully give representation to the majority of variegated climbers available in the UK for growing outside. Some may be on the edge of hardiness, while others will tolerate quite oppressive winter weather.
For convenience let's separate our climbers into the two main groups that are usually encountered; Self-clinging and those requiring support.
Self Clinging Climbers
These plants use aerial roots or suckers to adhere to surfaces. Some do this very quickly like Boston Ivies and Virginia Creepers (Parthenocissus species), others can take a long time. While there is no need to provide them with a support structure like trellis of wires, it will help them to establish and will enable you to blend in climbers that twine or use tendrils like Clematis, Lonicera and Sweet Peas (Lathyrus).
Hedera helix ‘Glacier’, ‘Goldchild’, 'Goldheart', 'St. Agnes' (below left/1st), 'Little Diamond' (below middle/2nd), 'Niagara Falls' (below right/3rd) and many, many others
Hedera or Ivy are by far the biggest group of variegated climbers out there and have the advantage of all being evergreen. They are generally very hardy and come in a variety of colours, leaf-shapes and patterns. Hedera use aerial roots to self support. They have a reputation for damaging brickwork and buildings.
In my experience this is from people pulling them from surfaces rather than them causing damage. Generally speaking, they don't cause damage, though roots will potentially open up existing cracks or flaky walls. Hedera helix, commonly called English Ivy is very tough, small-leaved and makes up the bulk of the selections available.
Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’ and ‘Sulphur Heart’ (Syn. 'Paddy's Pride') (Below)
Hedera colchica varieties are large-leaved, make excellent big climbers or groundcover. Occasional reverted green shoots should be removed.
Hedera canariensis 'Gloire de Marengo'
H. canariensis is less hardy than other species, but does reasonably well on sheltered walls in the UK.
Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris ‘Silver Lining’, ‘Kuga Variegated’ and ‘Miranda’
Climbing Hydrangea is well-known as an excellent flowering, deciduous climbing plant. It forms strong woody stems and clings to surfaces using aerial roots. Slow to establish, the variegated forms are even slower. Allow at least three years before it will start growing properly after planting. A long term prospect, but worth the wait. The variegated forms are not widely seen, but are becoming more available.
Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald n' Gold', 'Silver Queen' (Below left/1st), 'Emerald Gaiety' (below right/2nd) and others
Generally grown as shrubs or groundcover, given enough time these lovely evergreens will form aerial roots and cling to surfaces. The key to success is to plant them very near the base of the wall, try to avoid pruning them and wait!
Parthenocissus quinquefolia 'Star Showers'
There are one or two variegated Virginia Creepers, however neither are regularly found in the UK as yet. Perhaps worth growing, though I haven't any experience with them. As it normally becomes a massive deciduous climber, perhaps the lack of chlorophyll in the leaf will reduce its vigour. The offset to this though is usually susceptibility to scorch, so careful thought on positioning would be sensible to avoid burned foliage. Parthenocissus use sucker pads to cling to surfaces. These suckers remind me of Gecko feet. Interesting, if not of any value as an observation.
Climbers Requiring Support
These climbers will scramble and produce long growth, but without having aerial roots or means to self support, would fall from a fence or wall without having wires, trellis or other materials to twine through and around to provide support.
An ornamental Kiwi, though not one for fruit. The irregular pink and white leaf tips have the appearance of being dipped in a paint pot. Quick growing and ultimately quite a large deciduous, it is best grown on a trellis or pergola in a sunny position.
Ampelopsis glandulosa ‘Elegans’ (below)
This, less well known climber commonly called the 'Porcelain Berry Vine' for its handsome fruit and is worth growing in the UK for the foliage alone. Unusual, colourful and interesting deciduous climber, the irregular variegation can be very striking, especially early in the season. Does well in light shade, making it particularly useful.
Jasminum officinale ‘Fiona Sunrise’ (below) and ‘Argenteovariegatum’
There are a few variegated Jasmine hybrids, the best of which are the near all yellow 'Fiona Sunrise' (as pictured above) and the more traditionally variegated 'Argenteovariegatum'. Both are perfectly hardy deciduous climbers, though susceptible, especially on young foliage to sun scorch and wind burn. The advantage of Jasmines over other plants is that if they do get burned, they regrow quickly from pruning.
Lonicera japonica ‘Mint Crisp’ and ‘Aureoreticulata’
Lonicera x italica ‘Harlequin’
Variegated Lonicera or Honeysuckles are hit and miss in my experience, with a tendency to produce a lot of reverted (green) foliage that needs to be removed. 'Mint Crisp' has an irregular speckled variegation, which can see the green more yellow than green on occasion. 'Aureoreticulata' has yellow leaf veins similar to the effects of Cucumber Mosaic Virus. Lonicera japonica is semi-evergreen, but tend to lose a lot of leaves in colder winters. Harlequin' has a more conventional leaf edge variegation, though because of its rate of growth, foliage can be a little contorted at times. All are pretty easy going and more manageable than green leaved forms. None are overly beautiful in my opinion.
Solanum jasminoides ‘Variegata’
Far less well known that it perhaps should be. I think a lot of people are put off because it, like all Solanum, is poisonous. Deciduous, in some spots semi-evergreen, easy to grow and pretty quick in a sunny spot. Needs decent drainage, especially in winter, without which it will struggle to survive. White flowers in summer perhaps don't shine as much as they do set against the green-leaved species, the foliage alone is impressive. Top tips. Wear gloves when you prune. Grow at the back of borders to keep foliage away from people. To avoid poisoning, don't eat it. It is that simple.
Trachelospermum jasminoides ‘Variegatum’, T. asiaticum 'Ogon Nishiki' and 'Summer Sunset' (below)
Rarely grown in the UK, but decent enough given time, shelter and a strong support. Eventually they become quite heavy plants, especially the S. jasminoides (Star Jasmine) types, so ensure strong support. The flowers of T. asiaticum are a more attractive pale creamy-yellow (my opinion), but the variegated forms are far less vigorous and often better suited to groundcover in a sheltered spot or spilling over a pot. Rarely do the variegated T. asiaticum types make a plant big enough to climb in the UK. All are evergreen, need a decent amount of sun and hate sitting in wet soil.
Nasturtium - Tropaeolum majus and other sp.
Nasturtium, or Tropaeolum majus should be treated as annuals in the UK. There are a number of variegated forms, 'Alaska' being the most commonly available, though it pays to look around. An interesting addition to small spaces where they will climb through other plants, frames or supports, as well as trail over surfaces. Worth growing for the flower and foliage.
Clematis and Roses are two interesting and very large groups of climbing plants not represented here. While I am aware of a couple of variegated climbing roses and have heard of at least one variety of variegated Clematis, I have never seen either in the flesh and they definitely aren't readily available. Odd for plants with so many cultivars available generally.
Jargon Buster - Non-technical (hopefully)
Aerial Roots - Roots which grow on stems of plants rather than beneath the soil. They are generally used for anchoring plants to surfaces, though can take up water and nutrients as well.
Climber - A plant (in this case) that produces long growths capable of covering large areas and generally requiring some form of support to benefit this growth.
Cucumber Mosaic Virus - A viral infection of plants including Cucumbers that effects growth and mottles foliage, often discolouring the leaf veins yellow/white.
Deciduous - The plant loses its leaves. Generally this is in winter, though not always. It is predictable year on year though. This dormant period helps the plant to survive the winter and will regenerate new foliage during its growing season.
Dormant Season - The time when a plant is not actively growing. It is alive, but not growing and often has lost its leaves (though not always, see evergreen)
Evergreen - Foliage is retained on the plant throughout the year. Unlikely to be bare of leaves at any point, though will likely lose leaves in the colder months and often drop some old leaves when flushing with new foliage.
Foliage - Leaves
Semi-evergreen - The plant usually drops a percentage of its foliage during its dormant season. It will, however, retain enough foliage so as to be said to have leaves. Partly evergreen, partly deciduous.
Suckers - Can mean growth appearing away from the main plant coming out from underground, but in this case, it refers to small suction pads on modified stems that anchor plants to surfaces. Not common in plants and often best seen on Parthenocissus species.
Trellis - A plant support generally made from crossed, timber batons forming a grid pattern.
Variegation - A colour change from the base colour of a foliage (typically green). Variegation can be caused by a number of factors including virus and radiation. For it to be of value in a plant, it needs to be stable enough to remain on the greater majority of the foliage produced for the duration of the plant's life.
Wire - A structure made from wire attached to walls or surfaces using modified screws and/or 'vine eye' fixings.
To my mind, the best book on the subject of climbing plants and wall-shrubs is Brian Davis' The Gardener's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Climbers and Wall Shrubs; A guide to more then 2000 varieties including Roses, Clematis and Fruit Trees 1990. Still the best as far as I am concerned.
Some other books on Climbing Plants that I rate.
Like Variegation in general?
Trellis. I prefer a fine timber rather than thicker pieces if you can get away with it. This one has diamond pattern layout.
Here is the more conventional square layout.
Reasonably heavy-duty (enough for domestic gardening) Wire kit.
Inexpensive, decent quality, coated garden wire for everyday climber tying and training.
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