... 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.
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.
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
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?
Crazy for Coleus by Joyce B. Gladden
Creating a "Trash to Treasure" Many Holed Coleus Cutting Planter by Janet Colvin
Trailing Coleus: Overwintering in a Basket by Joyce B. Gladden
First Flowers by Joyce B. Gladden
Trash to Treasure ~ Making a Planter from a Milk Crate by Janet Colvin
DG Coleus Resource Thread and Forum
Unless otherwise noted, coleus photos are courtesy of rntx22 ('Alabama Sunset'), dale_the_gardener ('Black Magic,' 'Mary Ann-ee,' 'Oxblood,' 'Pineapple Prince'), MotherNature4 ('Black Waffle'), KevinReiner ('Brooklyn Horror,' 'Dr. Wu,' 'Duke of Swirl,' 'Fishnet Stockings,' 'Florida Sunshine,' 'Inky Pinky,' 'Tilt-a-Whirl,'Tobasco'), Calif_Sue ('California Splash'), TARogers ('Calligraphy'), Happenstance ('Christmas Candy,' 'Florida Sunsplash,' 'Kong Mosaic'), Brinda ('Collins Gold,' 'Paisley Shaw', 'Pretzel Logic,' 'Starry Night'), photobuff ('Copper Queen'), daylily ('Curly Speckles'), golddog ('Dada Daddy'), mgarr ('Dark Star,' 'Rustic Orange'), jadajoy ('Dwarf Odalisque,' 'Haines'), gabagoo ('El Brighto,'), kniphofia ('Freckles'), cbrandenburg ('Gold Lace'), BSD 'India Frills'), ZZsbabiez ('Inky Fingers'), sugarweed ('Lavender Lace,' 'Religious Radish,' 'Tiny Toes'), lincolnitess ('Meandering India'), htop ('Mr. Wonderful'), scutler ('Pele'), henryr10 ('Pink Chaos'), mystic ('Plum Parfait'), joeysplanting ('Saturn's Rings'), UniQueTreasures ('Watermelon')
Coleus "tree" photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Questions? Comments? Please scroll down to the form below. I enjoy hearing from readers!
© Larry Rettig 2009
(Please note this article was originally published on March 25, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)