Easy to grow coleus with its bright colored foliage is making a comeback in the shady garden, and as an indoor plant for home and office.
Brightly colored Coleus (Solenostemon) plants were brought to England in the mid-1800s by botanist and explorer Karl Blume, who had found them growing wild on the tropical island of Java. Victorian gardeners were wild for the vivid colour combinations and filled their formal garden beds with the plants.
But tastes change and popularity waned for the plants considered by later generations to be too gaudy for the garden. However, according to Ray Rogers, author of Rainbow Foliage for Containers and Gardens, coleus has continued to be the plant of choice for lab experiments in botany and medical science.
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Interest in coleus has been revived in recent years as taste swings back to favor bright color combinations and because coleus provide full season color while being very easy to grow. They are also a wonderful addition to the indoor garden or as an office plant.
Until very recently, Coleus were classified in a genus of their own as Coleus blumei named after Karl Blume. But botanical studies have placed Coleus into the Solenostemon genus; the brightly colored garden plants are of the species scutellarioides. So recently was this change made to the classification, that many garden texts and websites still refer to the plants as C. blumei.
Colorful Plants for House and Garden
The Coleus color is in the foliage and so their attractiveness is not limited to a flowering season, but provides garden interest all season long. Traditionally a shade garden plant, recent cultivars have been developed to hold their color in full sun.
Coleus come in a wide range of leaf shapes and eye grabbing color combinations of bronze, purple, red, burgundy, pink, yellow, white, and green.
“Allison” foliage has a bright magenta pink center with a lacy edging of purple and dark green, while “Blusher” has soft, round, velvety leaves that are solid burgundy flecked with red and magenta. “Chartreuse” is a solidly colored in vivid lime green so bright that some say the plant glows in the dark.
How to Grow Coleus
Perennial in their native tropical environment, Coleus are a sturdy annual in temperate zone gardens. Coleus grow best in moist, well-drained soil and will adapt to a wide range of light conditions. They do well as long as the days are warm and they have enough moisture. But coleus will wither in the slightest frost.
Most varieties develop their color best in filtered or light shade, but new cultivars have been developed to grow just as brightly in full sun. “Sun Coleus” still requires rich soil and plenty of moisture, but can be placed in sunny spots throughout the garden.
Their bright colors are best placed with dark green foliage plants, such as Monkshood and kept away from more subtle shade plants like Japanese Painted Ferns.
A sturdy plant, coleus make great houseplants too. Planted in a good quality potting mix and kept in a bright place out of direct sun, coleus add bright color to the indoor garden. Pinch frequently to keep the plants bushy and to maintain their form. Coleus also make good office plants, since they respond well under fluorescent lights.
Allow the potting soil to dry slightly between watering. Coleus will bounce back from a wilted state, but they lose some of their brilliance.
Starting New Coleus Plants
Coleus may be propagated from seed or by stem cuttings. They are easy to start with either method.
It is not recommended that coleus be direct sown into the garden. Start seeds indoors three to four weeks before last frost. Cover seeds lightly with seed starting mix. Keep the flats well watered, warm and shaded until seedlings appear. Place seedlings under lights and transplant to the garden when all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed.
Favorite color combinations can be propagated with stem cuttings. Coleus root readily from stem cuttings about 2 inches long and secured into a rooting medium or vermiculite. Keep the medium very moist and provide humidity until the cuttings have rooted. Once roots have appeared, the cutting may be potted into soil and treated as seedlings.