How would you like to grow a plant in your garden that stays beautiful the whole season; adds dramatic color to the garden the instant you plant it...
... requires little care, can be grown in sun or shade; comes in an incredible variety of colors, sizes, and shapes; has leaves that can be as large as six inches or as tiny as half an inch long; can also be grown as a houseplant; and roots easily in water?
Coleus is your answer.
Alabama Sunset (partnered in the thumbnail above with Japanese Forest Grass in the author's garden)
Coleus first burst onto the garden scene during the Victorian era, coming originally from Indonesia and Africa where it is native. Dutch traders carried several species to Europe in the mid-1800s, where plant breeders began to hybridize them.
Each hybridizer tried to create a new hybrid with leaves more wildly variegated and colored than his or her competitor. New plants often commanded outrageous prices, just like tulip bulbs did during "tulipmania" two centuries prior.
In the 1890s, both English and American gardeners adopted coleus with great enthusiasm, and the "coleus craze" was born. They not only incorporated it into their gardens, but took cuttings in the fall to use as houseplants during the winter months.
Originally a shade plant, coleus varieties have recently been developed that can take full sun. Among these are Christmas Candy, Indian Frills, Rustic Orange, Tilt-a-Whirl (see alphabetized photos in this article), Golden Bedder, Florida Sun Rose, Red Ruffles, and Solar Flare.
These and all other coleus varieties are very easy to grow. Plant them outdoors after all danger of frost has passed and the nighttime temperature no longer falls below 50 degrees. They do well in almost any kind of soil, but do best in moist, well-drained location that is fertile or that has been amended with compost. Make sure that the soil doesn't get overly dry when the plant is young and be sure to plant in shade or part shade, unless the plants are of the new, sun-tolerant variety.
Sun tolerant coleus cultivars are part of the reason coleus has become so popular again. Bringing those wonderful leaf colors (that last all season) into the sun has given gardeners a whole new palate to work with. Sun varieties can be grown in shade as well, but colors are more intense when exposed to part- or full sun.
If your soil has been amended with compost, no plant food is necessary. Even so, I do feed my coleus weekly with a dilute liquid fertilizer and am rewarded with extra-large plants. If you prefer more compact plants, pinch the growing tips back once the plant has branched several times on its own. Pinching off the insignificant flower stalks as they emerge helps direct the plant's energy into producing new leaves and keeping older ones looking good.
So, is coleus the new hosta? In some ways perhaps yes, in others, no. Both are wildly popular at the moment. They are grown primarily for their leaves, and both do well in shade, many of them in full shade and some newer ones in full sun. Many varieties of both plants have fanciful--if not downright weird--names. Each has over a thousand named varieties. Hostas are in the lead with well over 5,000 names.
Hostas, however, can't even come close to offering the wide range of colors in shady beds that coleus can and does. The best that hostas can do is leaves in shades of green, white, yellow, and "blue." Hosta blossoms are generally considered insignificant, except those that are fragrant, double, or particularly floriferous. Any color that the blossoms provide is transitory.
Lest I arouse the ire of hosta fans (of which I'm one), I hasten to add that I don't mean to belittle hostas. They are venerable and garden-worthy plants.
Want to create your own coleus variety?
As the photos in this article illustrate, coleus plants, especially the newer varieties, have many color variations in their foliage, from solids to patterns, spots, and flecks. These varieties are more susceptible to mutations or sports. Such sports grow a branch that is different genetically and in appearance from the parent plant. Click here for a photo of a plant with a burgundy-colored sport.
Since coleus cuttings root so readily, you can snip off a mutated branch and root it in water. Locate the container in a spot with bright light but no direct sun. Make sure that you change the water frequently to keep it from getting cloudy. Removing leaves that are below the water surface also helps. (Cloudy water promotes stem rot.) Once the roots are an inch or so long, you can plant the cutting in potting soil. When it's established and is growing well, you can give it a name. If you wish, you can contact the recently-formed Coleus Society to let them know about your new coleus. They may wish to add it to their list of coleus cultivars. You also can take cuttings of your favorite unmutated coleus varieties in late summer to overwinter them indoors.
Finally, you can create a coleus standard or "tree" by pinching off all lower branches and leaves on a coleus stem. All coleus stems are brittle, so make yours no more than a foot or so tall. It's also a good idea to stake the stem for added strength.
Duke of Swirl
Kong Mosaic (very large leaves!)
A smoldering combination of Coleus 'Kiwi Fern' with Begonia 'Bonfire' in the author's garden
Coleus Quick Facts
Scientific Name:Solenostemon scutellarioides
Common Names: Coleus, Flame Nettle
Did you know?
The horticultural name for coleus was originally Coleus blumei.
Coleus stems are square instead of round.
Coleus roots have medicinal properties (look for an upcoming DG article by Diana Wind.)
Recent coleus cultivar releases include: Big Red Judy, Electric Lime, Frilly Millie, Lancelot Velvet Mocha, Lemon Sensation, Pineapple Splash, Royal Glissade, Splish Splash, and Twist 'n' Twirl. Click here for photos.
Perilla cultivars are NOT coleus, although it is often difficult to tell them apart. There are some crosses between coleus and perilla coming into the horticultural market.
An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itís still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Although our garden is private, it's listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s. For more info: http://davesgarden.com/community/blogs/m/LarryR/. Photos that appear in my articles without credit are my own.