Sometimes when we work out in the garden, we find what I like to call “garden treasures”. These are usually just some type of mutated plant. Most of the time, they are just weeds that would otherwise be pulled. I have found different colored plants, and some that have weird growth habits. The most common obvious mutation I find is fasciation. A lot of people have seen these mutations in flowers where the center seems to be stretched into a line instead of a normal circle shape. It can also occur in the stems of plants and causes them to look ribbon-like. The other “treasure” I look out for is variegation. Variegation refers to when a plant produces different colors, usually white or yellow on green leaves. There are different color possibilities depending on species. Usually, I only find this mutation in plants that are very weedy. With so many plants growing from seed, these weedy plants with mutations tend to be easier to find.
Recently, while cutting plants back in preparation for the start of spring, I found fasciated stems on three different spirea plants.
It can be difficult to tell what the source of the fasciation is since many variables can cause it. These were all the same cultivar of spirea, so it could be related to their genetic makeup. Sometimes fasciation can be caused from environmental factors like being sprayed by certain herbicides. Aside from being fun to notice, these mutations are sometimes desired. Specifically in cactuses, it is commonly referred to as a crested cactus. It can occur in many cactus species and some are more common and can be found in local nurseries or garden centers quite often.
I have not found many plants with spontaneous variegation, but I did find a really cool red bud with variegated leaves during my second month working at Wellfield.
Unfortunately, random mutation like this can be quite unstable and all of the leaves turned white and it died since it was unable to photosynthesize enough to continue to grow. Variegation is a commonly sought after mutation since it can create much more colorful plants, much more exciting than just green leaves all year. Almost every nursery will have some examples of variegated plants. Boxwoods specifically are often in stock locally with green and white leaves. The different colors are very attractive, but can cause these plants to grow more slowly since they have a more limited capacity to photosynthesize. For houseplants, this does not deter most people, since they would rather have a small, attractive plant rather than a massive, fast growing one anyway. Flowers can also have a mutation to give it more than one color per flower. Sometimes it is genetic, and sometimes it can be caused by viruses. Many old varieties of tulips suffered from diseases that caused interesting variegation. They were desirable because they were more than one color, but over time, they eventually succumbed to the virus and lost vigor and died. This is also the reason certain varieties of tulips are no longer around. Fortunately for us, variegation is much healthier and more stable in our modern tulips.
There are a lot more mutations than can occur in plants, but I’m going to save some for a future blog. Keep a lookout for some of these random occurrences in your gardens. Maybe you can patent a cultivar of your own! If not, they are still fun to find unexpectedly. Nature always keeps us guessing.
Cody Hoff, Lead Horticulturist