Reviving Coleus' Popularity

Tropical coleus is cultivated for its colorful foliage. Here are a few striking varieties.
By: Maureen Gilmer
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Your grandmother probably grew it as a houseplant. If you were part of the 1970s water bottle terrarium crowd, you probably grew it, too. Since then coleus has laid low and split the scene altogether in the 1980s, and then in the late 1990s it exploded onto the garden world in a fabulous array of new exciting foliage colors.

Coleus is a genus of herbaceous tropical plants with most of our cultivated species originating in Southeast Asia, Java and Malaysia. It falls into the mint family along with nettles and other familiar herbs. It is technically perennial, but only in frost-free climates. Everywhere else it should be considered an annual grown for its foliage, not flowers.

These plants first became popular in Victorian times when breeding began with Coleus blumei, a species named after a Dutch authority on plants of Java, Karl Blume. This species crossed with Coleus pumilus has yielded more than 200 named hybrids. This makes the whole group incredibly complex to identify.

To simplify matters, the Simply Beautiful line of bedding plants has selected 18 top-notch varieties. These have been tested under rigorous conditions for their suitability as garden plants rather than houseplants. What's more exciting are their big burly landscape coleus that will make over a dull garden in just a few weeks. Colors range from bright shocking pink to rusty gold and virtually every shade in between. They are satisfying from day one because it's not flowers we want, but the leaves that look so great.

From this collection, there are a few particularly striking varieties. Those with a lot of irregular color and the paint-splatter look tend to produce a less dramatic presence on a larger scale application. They may be fascinating up close as a house or patio plant, but in the garden they tend to get lost. But a few varieties with strong clear color patters are the best outdoor garden attention getters.

Rustic Orange is incredibly bright, combining dark salmon-orange with high contrast lime green. This one brings huge color into darker foliage situations because it is a bigger showy plant to 3 feet tall. Wild lime bears a powerful lemon yellow leaf with thick, lime green ruffled margins. It makes a powerful contrast to darker leaf garden plants or when used in concert with Red Ruffles.

These coleus are equally happy in sun or shade. However, sun will increase color intensity while shade dulls it. For ideal conditions give them direct morning sun and protect from late afternoon exposure. Coleus come from damp hot tropical climates and they will grow best for you in fertile, well drained, evenly moist soil.

Coleus blooms in middle to late summer with tall spikes of blue flowers like other mints. But flower production slows and even stops foliage development, and foliage is why we grow this plant. To maximize foliage visibility and keep plants growing rapidly in their vegetative phase, nip off flowers the moment buds form on branch tips. Continue to nip flowers all season long to continue foliar performance.

Nitrogen is the chief nutrient that supports leaf and stem growth in plants. That's why we use it so much on lawns. Since coleus are foliage plants, use fertilizers with plenty of nitrogen to support rapid growth all season long. Liquid products such as Miracle Gro are ideal.

Look for Red Ruffles, Rustic Orange and Wild Lime coleus in garden centers and home improvement stores. Purchase them in 6-inch pots and get your garden makeover started with brilliant color without a single flower in sight.

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