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Painter's Palette

Plant of the Week

Painter's Palette
Latin: Persicaria virginiana

Picture of Painter's Palette foliage showing variegated colors of green,white, and red.

Gardeners having to deal with a lot of shade in their gardens are always looking for new plants that add color to the shaded recesses of their planting spaces. Painter’s Palette, often known as Tovara virginiana, is a plant relatively new to the garden scene that may be worth considering. For really shocking foliage color, few plants rival this beauty.

Painter’s Palette is an herbaceous perennial that grows to 18 inches tall and spreads by means of underground stems. It has large, oval shaped leaves that grow 4 to 6 inches long and are a beautiful composition of rich green, maroon markings in the shape of lightning bolts and cream colored patches that occupy just a portion or occasionally the entire leaf. Each leaf has a different variegation pattern. In the fall it produces loose, terminal spikes that grow to 8 inches long and contain a number of small, cup-shaped greenish flowers. The plant dies to the ground in the winter but is hardy statewide, in fact it grows from zones 5 to 9.

This species is relatively unusual because, while originally discovered growing in Virginia and named for that locale, it also occurs in Japan, Korea and the Himalayas of China. Such wide distribution is uncommon amongst plants of a single species and helps explain why it is described under at least three Latin names in garden catalogs.

Plants that have underground root systems sometimes can become aggressive and grow into areas where they are not wanted. Painter’s Palette is a member of the smartweed family and a few of these have sufficiently aggressive spreading habits to make them suitable for use as groundcovers. At least in my experience, this plant is not as aggressive a spreader as the groundcover types, but in a good site it could move away from its original planting location. Should you wish to increase its spread and use it as a groundcover, spring division or summer cuttings are an easy way to propagate new plants to increase the size of the planting.

The best planting location for Painter’s Palette is in medium shade in relatively fertile soil that can be watered during dry spells. Members of the smartweed family typically do best in relatively moist locations, but Painter’s Palette has good drought tolerance once established. It is ideal for mass plantings where its showy color markings and bold leaf size can make an effective display in those shady recesses that need a spot of summer color.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - April 23, 1999


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.