Gardening 101: Coleus

Plant coleus for dramatic, eye-catching effects. A zillion colors and shapes combined with new sun and drought tolerance make these annuals irresistible.
Article: Steve Bender

It's almost impossible not to grow coleus. There are just so many colors, forms, and sizes—one you will absolutely love is bound to catch your eye.

Some grow big and bushy. Others trail along the ground or cascade over the sides of a basket or pot. Leaf edges may be smooth, toothed, frayed, scalloped, or deeply lobed. And talk about color! Leaves can be solid or may combine three or four colors into psychedelic patterns.

David Clark knows as much as anybody about breeding coleus. Since 2003, he's been conducting trials with 30,000 to 40,000 new plants a year at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Many of the new and exciting selections of coleus you see at garden centers came out of his program. David has added several new traits to the old kinds of coleus to improve tolerance to drought, sun, and heat—creating even better plants. Turn the page to see our favorites.

3 Reasons to Try New Coleus Hybrids:

1. Improved Drought Tolerance 
In hot weather, the old coleus wilted in a flash and needed watering almost as often as the Kardashians need attention. While the new ones don't take drought as well as lantana or periwinkle, you can soak them one day and have them looking good again the next. Spreading, small-leaved types such as the Ducksfoot series are the most drought tolerant.

2. Sun and Heat Tolerance
Put the old seed-grown coleus in full sun and they'll fry like bacon. But the new cutting-grown ones, called "sun coleus," take months of blazing sun and scorching heat without a whimper. "We put them out in full sun on sheets of aluminum foil and also grow them in 50% shade," says David. "We look for those that grow well in both environments and don't change colors."

3. Very Few Flowers
Tall spikes of tiny blue flowers on coleus are a liability, not an asset. They detract from the foliage, which is the main show. "Most coleus start flowering in June or July," David notes. "We select plants that don't bloom until September." Even then, the flowers are few. David's work producing new and improved coleus continues; in fact, he's working on one now that grows 1½ feet tall and spreads 5 feet wide. Now that's a bedding plant!

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