Spots, Stripes, Swirls, and Splotches: Orchids with Variegated Leaves

Ludisia discolor, Jewel Orchid, orchid species leaves, variegated leaves, dark purple leaves with pink stripes, Orchids in the Park 2017, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CaliforniaPhalaenopsis celebensis, Moth Orchid, Phal, orchid species leaves, variegated leaves, spotted leaves, Orchids in the Park 2016, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CaliforniaOncidium Mendenhall 'Hildos', AKA Psychopsis, Butterfly Orchid, orchid hybrid leaves, variegated leaves, red and green leaves, spotted leaves, Orchids in the Park 2012, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

Variegated plants are in vogue these days, just like they have been many times throughout history. Centuries before Instagram made them the latest fad, orchid lovers in East Asia noticed leaf color variations in Cymbidiums and Samurai Orchids, and began cultivating them. Of course, many plant varieties besides orchids have colorful leaves, too. Gardens around the globe have long been decorated by their rich hues and fascinating patterns.

Maxillaria reichenheimiana, orchid species flower and leaves, variegated leaves, spotted leaves, Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CaliforniaPaphiopedilum orchid hybrid leaves, Paph, Lady Slipper, variegated leaves, mottled leaves, grown indoors in Pacifica, CaliforniaStenoglottis orchid hybrid leaves, variegated leaves, spotted leaves, Orchids in the Park 2018, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

Sarcoglottis sceptrodes, orchid species leaves, variegated leaves, Akatsuka Orchid Gardens, Volcano, Hawaii, Big IslandNageliella purpurea, AKA Domingoa purpurea, orchid species leaves, variegated leaves, RHS Garden Wisley, Woking, UKVanilla planifolia variegata, orchid species leaves, variegated leaves, grown indoors in San Francisco, California

There are so many variegated orchids that these 15 examples are just a drop in the bucket. Entire branches of the orchid family tree feature variegation. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of Paph varieties and Jewel Orchids with multicolor leaves. Moth Orchids, Dendrobiums, Vanillas, and Epidendrums may have them. Some terrestrials have them, likely as camouflage to help them blend into the forest floor. Colors can include different shades of green, white, yellow, silver, red, pink, or purple.

Dendrobium kingianum 'Beni Otome', orchid species leaves and flowers, variegated leaves, Orchids in the Park 2013, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CaliforniaPhalaenopsis hybrid orchid leaves, Phal, Moth Orchid, variegated leaves, Orchids in the Park 2018, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CaliforniaEpidendrum orchid with variegated leaves, yellow leaves with green edges, Orchids in the Park 2022, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

These orchids can be divided into two categories: those where variegation is the usual form, and those where it’s an unusual mutation. The first eight photos in this post show varieties where it’s the usual form. The last seven photos, starting with the Vanilla planifolia vine, show ones with mutations. These mutants may sometimes revert to growing their typical all-green leaves. If so, it may be necessary to cut off the all-green growth, and only allow the variegated parts to remain.

Neofinetia falcata, Vanda falcata, variegated leaves, yellow and green leaves, Samurai Orchid potted in moss in traditional Japanese pot, Pacific Orchid Expo 2019, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CaliforniaCymbidium orchid with variegated leaves, green leaves with white stripes, Orchids in the Park 2017, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CaliforniaSedirea japonica Minmaru-Shima, AKA Phalaenopsis japonica, Phal, orchid species plant with variegated leaves, green and yellow leaves, plant viewed from above, Orchids in the Park 2022, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

The final row of photos highlights the centuries-long traditions of cultivating variegated East Asian orchids. Patterned Samurai Orchids, Cymbidiums, and others, like the Phalaenopsis japonica (also known as Sedirea japonica) in the final photo, can command extraordinary prices among orchid lovers. Flawlessly raised in stunning flowerpots, they are each treasured works of art. They also exemplify why variegated plants are always in fashion.

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