Ten years back only the clueless grew coleus. They were gaudy relics from Grandmother's generation, but now coleus are back and teetering on the cutting edge. Why the change? They have been perfected. New varieties have colours that intensify in sun, but can also thrive in shade. In fact, because of their low light demands, coleus can also be used as house plants.
The Wizard Series is an excellent example of the new developments and the best seed raised strain for bedding and containers. The compact plants are durable and hardy to around 10°C (50°F). With colourful, medium-size leaves and a base-branching growth, they grow naturally close-to-the-ground and never need pinching to reach a bushy, symmetrical, compact form. The leaves appear in vivid shades that all reach the same size at the same time.
“Wizard Sunset” is one of the softer colours from the series, with heart-shaped leaves with serrated edges, in beautiful shades of bronze / apricot. Excellent in full sun, they work well alone making distinctive container plants and combine well with the warmer colours in the border.
They are one of the easiest and most satisfying plants to grow, showing their first colours in as little as two weeks and keeping their hues right through the summer.
Sow all year round for pot plant. For the garden, sow 10 to 12 weeks before the last expected frost, they will then be well developed when it is time to plant them outdoors.
Sow seeds onto a layer of moistened, sterile potting soil in a shallow tray, do not cover as they need light to germinate. Cover with glass or plastic to retain moisture, until the seeds have germinated. Place in a warm (21°C/ 0°F), bright (not full sun) place.
When the seedlings are large enough to handle, transplant into individual pots. Seedlings should always be held by a leaf, never by the stem.
When pricking out coleuses note that larger and stronger plants often have poorer quality foliage. When all danger of frost is past the plants may be set out in the garden. Plant them 30cm (12in) apart in rich, moist, well-drained soil.
Young leaves have to be protected against low temperatures and full sun. The leaves of the plants may get burned at high light intensity. Avoid drought stress, but do not overwater, the lower the growing temperature, the lower the water supply should be.
Fertilise with a diluted (50% mix) liquid fertiliser, too much feeding with high nitrogen fertilisers, encourages soft growth and poorer quality foliage. Coleus is very durable, so you can cut your plant back severely if needed (almost back to the soil level).
Leaves and flowers develop at the same time. Remove the flowers and pinch out new shoots for a bushier plant. To extend the lush colour into autumn, remove any stray flower spikes that emerge, as they take energy away from maintaining the gorgeous foliage, and the flowers are not particularly attractive.
Coleus should be kept at a 15 to 20°C (60-70°F) over winter. They will survive down to 10°C (50°F), and have been known to survive at 4°C (40°F) but only if kept dry, losses to rot and fungal diseases are high if the plants are allowed to get cold and damp.
Best in pots as house plants, or in the warmer conservatory, coleus can also be grown in containers or window boxes alongside other temporary summer planting. They can also look good bedded out with salvias, rudbeckias, gaillardias and other late-summer flowers in the red-yellow end of the spectrum in warm borders.
The intensity of light which the plant receives will have a direct bearing on the intensity of the foliage colouring. Some varieties of coleus may produce their best colour in light shade, while others look best in bright lighting.
Coleus eventually produces woody stems and can be trained as standards. To do this, pinch out side-shoots and support the stem with a 3ft cane. When the plant reaches the desired height, pinch out the top shoot and keep removing lead shoots.
The roots of coleus are known from ancient times, where it served as a stand in for Salvia divinorum, in shamanistic rituals. Not much research has been done on the psychoactive chemicals within the plant. The effects resemble those of psilocybin, which is found in psilocybian mushrooms.
Two species were in cultivation here by the 1860s, C. verschaftelti and C. blumei, and the first coloured-leaf variety appeared at a Royal Horticultural Society show in June 1861, introduced by William Bull, a nurseryman of King's Road, Chelsea. Seven years later the RHS organised a promotional auction of new hybrids. One plant fetched 59 guineas, expensive now, but in those days was an enormous sum.
Meanwhile Bull had bred about 150 varieties, of which he was marketing the best 18, cannily timing new releases to coincide with mentions of the plant in the gardening press. The breeding and propagation of sports was so frenetic that Gardener's Chronicle of 1869 dubbed it "coleus fever". Varieties have changed little since then and we're still working with essentially Victorian material.
Several years ago, the powers that be changed the name to Solenostemon but in a blatant act of taxonomic defiance, we refuse to call them anything but Coleus.
The Wizard Series colours are:
- Coral Sunrise - Coral centre with olive-green and bright green margins.
- Golden - Lime green. (Good in full sun)
- Jade - Clear ivory with green margins
- Mosaic - Green splashed with burgundy, red and cream (Shade lover)
- Pastel - Coral pink marbled with deep bronze, edged green
- Pineapple - Green with dark red flecks
- Rose - Fuchsia rose edged with a cream border
- Scarlet - Rich Scarlet-bronze red with pale green edge
- Sunset - Vivid Apricot-Bronze (Good in full sun)
- Velvet Red - Rich Velvety deep Red (Good in full sun)
Ray Rogers - Coleus: Rainbow Foliage for Containers and Gardens:
This book is the most comprehensive work ever written on coleus, covering over 225 varieties with almost 400 spectacular photographs. The last half of the book (almost 100 pages) is an encyclopedia of the various coleus cultivars. The categories are in themselves quite informative. First there are the trailing ones (great for hanging baskets and container gardening), then they are broken down by leaf shape and size (elongate, fingered, duckfoot, twisted, and little), and then it starts to get really interesting. The next and largest section is “Cultivars by colour or pattern”. There are 26 sub-categories in this section! Red with green edge, Red with orange edge, Red-Orange with yellow edge, Yellow with red flecks or patterns, Green with red edge, and on and on. The last section is called Unique Cultivars and these are the ones that defy categorisation. The pros and cons of each variety are discussed in detail.
The chapter on Coleus in the Garden is just incredible. It’s mostly pictures with detailed captions, but wow, what pictures. The colour, shape and texture combinations with other plants is positively psychedelic. And when coleus are combined with other tropicals (such as croton) it’s as good as it gets! Coleus are after all from Java.
The photo captions are remarkably thorough, sometimes explaining what’s wrong and how to avoid it. Rogers lets us know that the same cultivar can have lots of different names, and lets us know what they all are. He tells us what to expect from the different seed mixes. If you weren’t a big coleus fan when you opened the book, you will be by the time you close it.
Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, www.timberpress.com, 2008.
978-0-88192-865-5, 288 pages, colour photographs, hardback.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 25 Seeds Family Lamiaceae Genus Solenostemon Species scutellarioides Cultivar Wizard Sunset Synonym Coleus blumei Common Name Painted Nettle. Flame Nettle Hardiness Tender Perennial often used as an Annual Foliage Heart-shaped leaves with serrated edges, in shades of bronze / apricot. Height 25-30cm (10-12in) Spread 25-30cm (10-12in) Position Full Sun or partial shade. Soil Rich, moist, well-drained soil Time to Sow Sow all year round for indoor plants or sow in late spring for outdoor plants Notes Often grown as an annual