Coleus is an often-overlooked plant that can add instant pizzazz to the garden.
It has come a long way since Victorian days when its basically green foliage was highly desirable for shade gardens and parlor containers.
Thanks to breeders and gardeners’ love for color, coleus now comes in shades of almost every color in the rainbow, and the leaves are every bit as showy as flowers.
Finding plants with vivid color for shade is not always easy, but coleus will brighten your garden with multicolored foliage that lasts until the first frost.
Coleus ended up in my garden this year by happenstance. A basket of pale green coleus was a door prize. A week earlier, I had run into a friend at a garden center, and she had sun tolerant coleus in her shopping cart. Mary Ross was selecting “spiller” plants for her outdoor containers that are in part shade but get some really hot sun part of the day since her garden was scheduled for an Arkansas Master Gardener tour. Her choices were “Trailing Plum,” “Bridal Train” (both trailers or “spillers”) and “Flame Thrower” (an upright grower). In design lingo, “spiller” is one of the three parts of the container concept; the others are “thriller” and “filler” plants. So, this old familiar plant caught my attention.
Sometimes called “painted nettle” or “poor man’s croton,” coleus is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and has its characteristic square stems and opposite leaves. However, it does not have the invasive growth habit of the herb mint and is well-behaved in the garden.
Colors originally ranged from white, yellow, red and pink, copper, dark green to chartreuse. Today there seems to be no limit of colors or combinations in the same leaf.
Leaves can be narrow (as small as one inch) or wide (more than 8 inches) and can have ruffles or bold margins, can be round or ovate, and offer a variety of interesting shapes and fancy leaf edges. Plants can be trailing, mounding or spreading.
Coleus is easy to grow and maintain in moist well-drained soil. Location can be sunny or shady, depending on the variety.
Although historically considered shade or part sun plants, new cultivars grow and thrive in the sun, giving gardeners even more options. Among the sun coleuses are “Darth Vader,” “Defiance,” “Blair’s Witch,” “Beckwith Gem," “Habanero,” “Stormy Weather” and “Trailing Lava Rose” (the names hint of their colors).
They are generally disease free and attractive to hummingbirds, but can have the usual problems with mealybugs, aphids and whiteflies.
Handling our Arkansas heat and humidity is no problem, but even a slight hint of frost can be damaging to the plant that cannot survive temperatures much below 50 degrees.
In addition to carefree maintenance, coleuses are easy to propagate — so easy that cuttings root quickly in a glass of water. You can do this in summer and add newly rooted plants to your garden, or you can take cuttings and overwinter them for next year, either by leaving them in water or repotting as they root. They can also be grown from seed.
Although coleus does produce tiny flower spikes studded with salvia-like blue trumpets, most gardeners pinch them off. If allowed to bloom unchecked, the plant can lose its vigor and become weedy-looking. Pruning the stems regularly also produces bushier growth and more beautiful foliage.
Fair warning: If you go shopping for coleus, it will be difficult to return home with only ONE or TWO!!!
Here’s an update on sansevieria (“mother’-in-law’s tongue” or “snake plant”), mentioned previously in columns. Friend Bonnie recently shared part of her plant that had been given to her by her mother-in-law more than 40 years ago. The lance-shaped leaves are 42 inches tall and new shoots are coming up. My challenge is to keep this historic plant thriving.
And, last Christmas, I gave my siblings plants for their bedrooms because of their ability to cleanse the air at night. In earlier research I had learned that sansevieria does bloom and although I have never seen the blooms, several fellow gardeners with large plants occasionally enjoy the spectacle. Well, it occurred recently in Caulksville. Small white flowers surprised brother James and sister-in-law Rosemary and I did see the spent blooms on the stem. Last year, sansevieria was hard to find locally; this year, it is in every garden center.
The passalong butterfly ginger lily that Louisiana sister-in-law Phyllis surprised us with last winter is thriving in Arkansas soil, and we are looking forward to fabulous, fragrant white blooms in September.
And plumeria, a passalong from a fellow Master Gardener, is producing shiny green leaves. Susan Horton surprised me with this plant last fall. It was a stick in a pot of dirt, which I overwintered indoors as a stick in a pot of dirt. Patience has paid off and now it is coming alive, so there is a bit of Hawaii in my garden.
Experimenting with new cultivars is exciting and fun but tending to passalongs offers countless rewards.
And, if these Dog Days of Summer are beating you down, here’s some hopeful weather lore, thanks to Farmers’ Almanac: Puffy white clouds on July 25 foretell much snow in the coming winter, and rain on St. Anne’s Day (July 26) will continue for a month and a week.
Next week, the topic will be: the tomato — incredibly edible.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to GardeningForTheRecord@gmail.com.