The coleus are the stars in this lively planting at Atlock Farm in Somerset, New Jersey. Mingling with green clumps of upright basil and boxwood standards

Rainbow of coleus, from top to bottom: ‘Ava’, ‘Dark Star’ mixed with ‘Purple Emperor’, ‘Tabasco’, ‘Inky Fingers’ and ‘Lifelime’. Photo by: Richard Hartlage.

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.

GROWING COLEUS

Appeal:

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.

Zones:

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.

Care:

Plant coleus long after the danger of frost is past. 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. To promote denser, more compact growth pinch out flower spikes before they elongate.

Exposure:

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.

Soil:

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.

COLORFUL COLEUS VARIETIES

Swipe to view slides

Photo by: Richard Hartlage

‘INKY FINGERS’

A versatile and sturdy trailer, useful for hanging baskets and edges of borders. Combine with Ipomoea ‘Blackie’ and Colocasia ‘Black Magic’ to echo the dark leaf splotches.

Photo by: Richard Hartlage

'ANINI SUNSET’

Brings together some of the newer coleus colors, but you need to be creative to really appreciate them. Grow in a hanging basket or container placed at eye level to enjoy the contrast between the red- and green-flecked orange upper-leaf surfaces and the beet-red undersides. Medium-sized habit and likes afternoon shade.

Photo by: Richard Hartlage

'SATURN’

The green lava-lamp markings range from large blobs to a mass of dots, but the contrast with the lush damask red is striking. If you find a leaf pattern you like, root some cuttings to preserve it, and watch for variations on the same plant. Like its namesake, ‘Saturn’ is a big boy. Best out of direct, strong sun.

Photo by: Richard Hartlage

‘ALABAMA SUNSET’

The leaves change from golden chartreuse to orange red to darker red as they age, providing opportunities to combine them with foliage and flowers in harmonious or complementary shades. Dazzling in sunny areas and combined with dark-leaved cannas

Photo by: Richard Hartlage

‘WILD LIME’

An excellent choice for brightly lit areas out of direct sun. Viewed from a distance, a patch of this creates the illusion of a lime-green haze. It grows less rapidly than many of its kin and won’t attain impressive proportions, so try it in a dark-toned container on a plinth.

Photo by: Richard Hartlage

‘SUNNY’S GOLD’

Brings light to semishady areas and tolerates a good deal of sun, too, becoming a dense mound of foliage. Too much shade increases the number and size of green patches and lessens impact of the gold. Intricately cut leaf edges make an interesting counterpoint to plain-edged neighbors.

Photo by: Richard Hartlage

‘WINE AND LIME’

Attains the size of a small shrub if fed and watered liberally, either in the open ground or in a roomy container. Combine it with green- and purple-leaved coleus and other plants, or feature it as a bold mass or single specimen. Shoots with solid-color leaves often appear, adding interest. Prefers bright light.

This article was adapted from its original format for use on the web.

RELATED:
Foliage Plants
Annual Plants

Free Weekly NewsletterSign up for weekly gardening inspiration and design tips

Join thousands of readers, from avid to casual gardeners, for plant information, gardening solutions, and design inspiration to make the most of your outdoor spaces.

* Required Fields
We will never sell or distribute your email to any other parties or organizations.

More about the newsletter

Follow Us Garden Design Magazine Facebook Garden Design Magazine Twitter Garden Design Magazine Google Plus Garden Design Magazine Pinterest Garden Design Magazine Instagram Garden Design Magazine Youtube

Shop Garden Products

From tools to furniture, these garden products are sure to delight

Discover unique garden products curated by the Garden Design editors, plus items you can use to solve problems in your garden right now, and best sellers from around the web.

Shop Garden Design!