Coleus is one of the first plants I ever grew.
A Girl Scout project yielded a small potted plant with pink and white leaves touch with green. I named it Bobby, and it survived as a houseplant for more than a year — a testament to its durability, given the way I lavished it with neglect.
The ability to thrive in low light made coleus a popular houseplant back in the 1970s, but today it is prized as a fantastic annual foliage plant for shaded gardens and containers.
Leaves are these plant’s appeal, and they offer an amazing palette of orange, red, yellow, pink, burgundy, white and even green. Leaf shapes may be rounded or strap-like, nearly smooth-edged, or scalloped and lobed like an oak. Variegation patterns range from a crazy quilt of multicolor splashes to a simple contrasting picotee edge or veining.
You can find a size or shape for just about any situation. Most typical is a 12- to 18-inch plant with a rounded form. Recent introductions include giants that come close to 3 feet tall and trailing plants that top out at around 10 inches before gently cascading — perfect for garden’s edge, top of the retaining wall or in containers.
With such wonderful leaves, the slender spikes of purple or lavender flowers are almost a distraction. Although the blooms are pretty enough on their own, new foliage becomes smaller when plants start to blossom, so I usually pinch the buds off as they form. I must not be the only one who doesn’t care for the flowering effect, because many of the newer varieties have been developed to produce few, if any blooms.
Many of today’s coleus varieties are promoted as sun-lovers. These plants still grow well in shade, but leaves are sturdier, enabling them to thrive in hot and sunny spots as well. In full shade, leaves will grow broader to capture available light. In full sun, plants tend to grow more and smaller leaves, and colors are a bit more vibrant. Creamy yellows become white, chartreuse green becomes brighter yellow.
I couldn’t begin to list all the varieties available in coleus today, but will give a few highlights.
Kong coleus is an exceptionally large-leaved series that needs shade to look its best. Available in several colors, including green-margined with centers splashed in white, rose, red, scarlet, or salmon pink, and a mosaic splashed with shades of red and white. Plants grow 18 to 20 inches tall with a similar spread.
The Wizard series is a smaller-growing assortment that includes both sun tolerant and shade-preferring varieties. These are often sold in flats and four-cell packs, economical for filling in large spaces.
I am partial to forms with two-tone leaves; a strong main color with a second, complementary shade in the veins, margin or blushed over the whole leaf. These make great pairings with plants that play off one of the colors on the coleus, a sort of harmony and contrast at the same time.
In the orange-gold-red spectrum I am partial to Henna, Sedona Sunset, and Inferno. Fishnet Stockings, The Line and Center Line are chartreuse with varying degrees of mahogany veining. All are very nice when paired with gold, copper, or burgundy sweet potato vine.
Favorite solid-color selections include Redhead, Wasabi and Dark Star.
FlameThrower, Ducksfoot and Under the Sea are series of coleus with unusual elongated, lobed leaves in a wide range of color patterns.
These reliable foliage annuals provide constant color to the summer garden, in sun or shade. And come fall, you can always bring one in as a houseplant.