Planting and Caring For Coleus
Bring summer color and texture to your garden with coleus plants’ dramatic leaves. Because flowers aren’t the only way to add zing.
Sure, flowers are the star of a summer garden. But coleus are like a key supporting player, bringing a rainbow of vibrantly colored leaves that light up shady areas in your garden. And so many colors! There’s a rainbow of leaf colors: Orange, lime, blood red, maroon, apricot, red, purple, nearly black and hot pink. Patterns on the leaves vary, too, from tiny and spotted to gigantic and marbled, with some leaves toothed, some ruffled, others lobed and divided.
Coleus were the ‘It’ plant in Victorian gardens. They were planted in patterns so that their leaves simulated prints in tapestries or Persian rugs. Coleus inspired a craze among 19th century gardeners to rival that of the one for tulips in 17th century Holland, with collectors paying big bucks for rare varieties. The coleus fad faded away, as fads always do, and only people who grew coleus from heirloom seeds had them in their gardens throughout most of the 20th century.
Then in the 1990s, coleus plants had a comeback when hybridizers rediscovered the beauty of coleus’ boldly colored leaves. A coleus renaissance happened, and now there are hundreds of varieties of coleus plants available.
Native to the tropics of Southeast Asia, Africa, India and Australia, coleus is grown as an annual in most parts of the country. They were originally a shade plant, but hybrids have been developed that can tolerate partial and even full sun. Coleus comes in three forms: upright, rounded and trailing. They range in height from 6 inches to 3.5 feet and grow 1 to 3 feet wide.
Botanical Name: Solenostemon scutellariodies cvs.
Common Names: Coleus
Hardiness Zones: 10
Bloom Time: Throughout growing season
- Coleus grows in most zones as a warm season annual. It’s a tropical plant, so one nip of frost turns it to mush.
- You can start them from seed or cuttings, or buy new plants from a nursery.
- Choose the right plant for the right spot: If you’re planting in a shady area, choose a coleus variety that likes shade. Filling a sunny spot? Pick a sun coleus.
- You’ll get the best leaf color, generally, if you give a coleus morning sun and afternoon shade.
- Plant seeds directly in the ground or transplant after danger of frost has passed.
- Coleus prefer loose, well-drained soil enriched with organic material.
Growing and Caring for Coleus
- Feed plants every two weeks with organic fertilizer.
- To keep the plant bushy and strong, pinch back the tops every few weeks.
- Coleus do produce flowers. They’re underwhelming, tiny and on stalks. Cut them off to keep the plant producing leaves, because the leaves are why you grow coleus.
- Keep coleus watered. Don’t let the soil dry out or they’ll wilt.
- You can collect seeds from your coleus and save them for next year’s garden. Near the end of the summer, leave the flower stalks so they set seed. Collect and store the seed over the winter.
- You can take cuttings from coleus and root them in a soilless potting mixture.
- If you plan to overwinter, take cuttings of the coleus in early fall and root them so you have small plants to bring indoors. You can plant them in the garden the following spring.
Pests and Problems
- Grown outdoors, coleus are mostly pest- and disease-free. Bring them indoors, and you may have trouble with mealy bugs, aphids, whiteflies and spider mites.
- Rutgers University gives coleus a C on deer resistance, meaning the deer will eat your coleus as soon as they’re finished with your hostas.
- Plants that get too little sun will get leggy.
- Plants that get too much sun won’t be as colorful and leaves may burn.
With hundreds of cultivars and varieties of coleus on the market, there's a coleus plant for every purpose.
Coleus for Shade and Part Sun
ColorBlaze series includes the gorgeous ‘Sedona,’ which has leaves as orange as the striking rocks in the Arizona town it’s named for. Grows upright 24 to 30 inches tall.
‘Lime Time’ has chartreuse leaves and grows upright to 36 inches tall.
‘Watermelon’ has leaves with pink centers surrounded by lime green and run through with veins of magenta. Grows 24 inches high and 20 inches wide.
‘Inferno’ has intense red-orange serrated leaves. Grows 14 to 28” inches tall, so good for containers and small spaces.
‘Chocolate Mint’ has chocolate leaves rimmed in bright green. Small plant, grows just 12 inches high and gets 12 inches wide.
‘Diablo’ has long, ruffled red leaves with black centers. 34 inches tall.
Coleus for Sun
Stained Glassworks series are all mounding varieties that grow 12 to 36 inches tall and 18 to 36 inches wide. ‘Raspberry Tart’ has pointy, toothed chartreuse leaves with cherry red variegation. ‘Tilt A Whirl’ has circular mahogany leaves with lime edges and centers.
‘Marrakesh’ has tiny leaves in red and yellow with purple veining. Mounding habit, up to 30 inches tall and 16 inches wide.
‘Chocolate Covered Cherry’ has leaves with rose-colored centers surrounded by mahogany and edged in lime green. 14 inches tall, 12 inches wide.
‘Alabama Sunset’ has red-pink leaves, with new growth being sunny. Yellow. Grows upright 16 to 26 inches. Also known as Bellingrath Pink, named for Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, Ala., where it was developed.
‘Wasabi’ has serrated chartreuse leaves that has stunning colors and patterns in full sun.
Short and Trailing Coleus
‘Be Mine’ is a trailing coleus, with deep red leaves tinged with green-gold edges. Gets 10 inches tall and trails to 30 inches. Perfect for a hanging basket or as the spiller in a container.
'Wizard Velvet Red' has leaves with serrated edges outlined with a touch of ivory-white. They grow just 10 to 12 inches high in partial shade or sun.
Courtesy of National Garden Bureau
'Wizard Velvet Red' may remind you of a wizard's rich red, velvety robe.
‘Red Trailing Queen’ has red leaves rimmed in green, growing 12 inches tall.
‘Thumbelina’ is teeny, 1-inch leaves in green and burgundy and gets just 6 inches tall.
‘Gold Brocade’ has gold leaves speckled with purple and red; 18 inches tall.
‘Bipolar by Golly’ has pale lavender leaves speckled with red and yellow, 28 inches tall. How do you resistant a plant named for mental disorder?
‘Kaleidoscope’ has lemon yellow leaves with red streaks and bright green centers; 30 inches tall.
Using Coleus in the Garden
- Plant in beds or containers alongside impatiens, zinnias, begonias, ornamental grasses, sweet potato vine or heliotrope.
- Use upright and mounding coleus in mass plantings and border edging.
- Use trailing coleus in containers and hanging baskets.
- Plant solid color coleus varieties in mass plantings to make a bold spot of color.
- Use multi-colored varieties to echo colors in neighboring plants.
- Plant coleus in shady locations to light up the space.