Colorful Coleus

Want bright, easy foliage? This is the plant for you.

Colorful Coleus (NEW)
Several types of sun-loving coleus form a lush, vibrant border. No flowers are needed for continuous color. Photo: Van Chaplin

Gardeners want lots of show for not much dough. That's why they should plant coleus. It costs little, grows quickly, and has the gaudiest foliage imaginable. It's equally happy in the ground or in a pot. And from the time it's planted until a hard freeze in fall, it supplies eye-popping color

A tropical plant usually treated as an annual, coleus owes its appeal to phenomenal genetic variability. There is hardly a leaf color, shape, size, or growth habit that coleus hasn't mastered. Red, orange, yellow, or pink leaves. Huge, scalloped, frilly, or tiny leaves. A plant that creeps, a plant that stands tall, coleus does it all.

Tacky No More
As popular as coleus is now, not long ago people considered it tacky. Hot, cheery, assertive colors were out; cool, tranquil, shy pastels were in. But then folks discovered an unsettling equation: Pink + lavender + white + nothing else = one boring garden. According to Pam Baggett of Singing Springs Nursery in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, Southerners picked up on this quicker than others.

"On a typical summer day in the South, it's so hot and humid and sunny out that the sky's almost gray. Under those conditions, pastels don't look like much," she says. "I also think we've gotten over wanting our gardens to look soft and silver like British ones. People are injecting more personality into their gardens."

Pam is certainly doing her part. Her mail-order catalog lists 58 selections; another 150 or so lurk in her greenhouse, waiting to be liberated. She attributes her ardor for coleus to her childhood in Carolina Beach, North Carolina, "back when it had this exquisite boardwalk and enormous carousel. It was like a carnival every night. I fell in love with color."

Tips for Beginners
If the colors of coleus have you smitten, too, now is the time to act. Garden centers are offering more and more named selections. But for better assortments and really wild-looking plants, buy from a mail-order nursery.

Although it's tempting to plant one of each coleus you find, don't mix them all together like toppings on a pizza. You'll get more impact by planting a sweep of one type here and a mass of another type there. Large, shrubby selections (up to 36 inches tall), such as 'Aurora' and 'Alabama Sunset,' work well in the back of the border. Creepers and spreaders, such as the Ducksfoot Series and 'India Frills,' are great for edging, filling in spaces between other plants, or cascading from hanging baskets and window boxes.

Native to Java (an island of Indonesia), coleus loves the heat. Give it fertile, moist soil, some liquid fertilizer every couple of weeks, and a good Southern summer, and it will grow faster than the national debt.

Most older selections, such as those in the Wizard Series, fade and burn in full sun, but some newer types tolerate both sun and shade. They include the beautiful selections shown on these pages as well as the Florida Sun, Solar, Stained Glassworks, and Sunlover Series. Older types also sprout antenna-like flower spikes all summer, which detract from the foliage. But the new sun coleus bloom very little, keeping all eyes on the prize.

How can you avoid losing your prize when a frost finally threatens in fall? One way is to root a cutting. Though coleus root quickly in water during summer, in fall they do better in potting soil. Dip the cut ends in rooting powder, and stick them into moist soil. Provide the bright light of a windowsill, and they should make it through winter. But even if they perish, don't feel cheated. You got lots of show for a little dough.

"Colorful Coleus " is from the June 2003 issue of Southern Living.

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