Leaves of a Wildly Different Colour: Coleus

Varied colours in coleus leaves range from lime green, red, and purple.

Coleus in the garden: A Persian carpet of colour that never fades.

Back in the 70s, coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) was the ubiquitous house plant, part of dorm room scenery growing in water in a coffee mug, next to an avocado plant. Many of these pink and green specimens languished in dark rooms looking frightful, their main attraction was they were hard to kill.

Those dark days are over, as coleus has undergone a Renaissance. Growers and plant breeders have created a wealth of rich colours and textures in coleus foliage, a veritable paint-box ranging from deep velvety purple to vivid chartreuse green. The leaf shapes range from intriguing pillowy textures, to wavy scalloped edges, as in one of my favourites, “Inky Fingers“, with an almost black leaf edged in bright green.

A tender tropical, we grow coleus in Canada as annuals; however, they are ridiculously easy to propagate by cuttings, so save your favourites by putting 4” cuttings in water in a bright room over winter.

Coleus foliage take different forms — trailing, upright, delicate, to magnificently robust — adding variety and interest to a mixed planter. Coleus plants are so varied that a planter with coleus alone can look spectacular. They also do very well planted in the ground, where some will get positively shrub-like, like the “Kong” series, which grow to 22 inches. Coleus do flower, but these are mostly insignificant; it’s generally best to pinch off flower buds, and grow for the spectacular leaves; they are true jewels of the garden.

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