So you thought you knew coleus? If the selections made available in the past 15 years haven’t dazzled you, you don’t know what you’re missing. A popular bedding plant in Victorian days once known in only a handful of colors on cookie-cutter plants, today’s trendsetters draw from a broader palette. The cornucopia of choices results from the work of enthusiasts and breeders and from coleus’ phenomenal natural variability. These showy mint-family members (with the weighty botanical name Solenostemon scutellarioides) offer new forms every year. Colors from bright chartreuse to hot pink to velvety near-black are neatly to madly applied to a variety of leaf shapes on plants from under 6 inches to more than 4 feet tall, making them ideal for the border or container.
The gardening expression “as easy as coleus” plainly started with these almost carefree yet versatile Indonesian natives. Their leaves evoke images of their homelands and provide as much color as-and last far longer than-many flowers.
Though coleus are perennial in extreme southern Florida and the mildest parts of California, in most of the country frost brings down the curtain on the season-long display. Potted plants will survive winter if kept above 50 degrees in a sunny spot indoors.
Cuttings of favorites root easily in water or in a loose potting medium for overwintering and sharing with other coleophiles. Keep an eye peeled for mealybugs and spider mites. Plant coleus long after the danger of frost is past. To promote denser, more compact growth pinch out flower spikes before they elongate.
Coleus aren’t just for shade anymore. Almost all thrive in morning sun, and enthusiasts have been producing types that tolerate all but the strongest sun, even in the South.
Any average, moist but well-drained soil suits them, but a little extra fertilizer (such as 5-10-10) promotes lusher growth and richer leaf colors.