Paul's Plant Pick Week 8: Coleus

Cool, Colorful Coleus

Back in Victorian days, a sort of Coleus Fever swept through much of Europe after plant collectors returned from the tropics – especially Indonesia and Sri Lanka -- with dozens of the new “it” plants. As the popularity of Coleus grew, so did the price aristocratic gardeners were willing to pay for unusual specimens. In just a few years, “The Great Coleus Race” had begun, as hybridizers and hobbyists alike rushed to create new varieties and cash in on the craze.

But the fad soon faded, and by the middle of the 20th century nearly all Coleus were grown from seed and sold as bedding plants for shady gardens. Unfortunately, most of the varieties were short in stature and quick to bolt.

A resurgence began in the 1990s, and today Coleus are among the most diverse plant group around, with amazing colors, vibrant hues, and tantalizing textures. Most grow to a height of between 18 and 30 inches, are slower to bolt, and can tolerate a good deal of sun. And they grow equally well in the ground or in containers.

I like to pinch the terminal growth of Coleus during the first few weeks after planting to encourage a bushier form, and I remove the flower stalks as they form to encourage more root and foliage development. In my experience, Coleus will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, but they do need to be watered regularly. They’ll do fine in two to six hours of sun a day, but in a hot, west-facing spot they may wilt in the afternoon regardless how much you water them.

My favorite choice among Coleuses (yes, that’s the plural of Coleus – I looked it up) changes from year to year, but at the moment I’m partial to ‘Electric Lime.’ Aptly named, it looks as though bolts of yellow lightning are shooting through its lime-green leaves. I love it. My guess is you will too.